By / Jul 15

Looking at some examples might help us envision what a healthy interplay between media and community can look like. While there are many people I could highlight as models of faithful belonging and redemptive publishing, it would be hard to top Frederick Douglass and Dorothy Day. For both of them, reading books and newspapers transformed their lives, introducing them to new communities of discourse and action. Their reading led them to imagine new possibilities for joining with and working among the members of their own places. This membership, in turn, led them to speak publicly on behalf of their communities, challenging others to belong redemptively to their own neighbors and to address the pressing issues of their time. 

Douglass, reading, and abolition

In his autobiography, Douglass describes the arduous process by which he learned to read, first through the good graces of a naive slave mistress, and then by giving poor White boys bread in exchange for lessons. At the age of 12, he read “The Columbian Orator,” a classroom anthology of speeches and poems that includes an imagined dialogue between a master and his slave. The slave made such good arguments for his emancipation that the master granted his manumission. Douglass was, of course, drawn to these arguments: “They gave tongue to interesting thoughts of my own soul, which had frequently flashed through my mind, and died away for want of utterance.” As Douglass goes on to explain, he didn’t even know the meaning of the word abolition — much less that there was a whole community of abolitionists agitating for the end of slavery — until he read a newspaper account of abolitionist activities. 

After his reading brought the abolition community to his consciousness and helped him articulate a case for emancipation, Douglass devoted his energies to educating his enslaved friends. Once he had “created in them a strong desire to learn how to read,” he held a Sabbath school and taught any enslaved people who were interested. Their school was eventually discovered and broken up by White masters; these men knew the grave danger that reading posed to the institution of slavery. As Douglass testifies, this learning community provided a rare opportunity for these downtrodden people to behave like “intellectual, moral, and accountable beings.” Eventually, Douglass escaped to the north, but instead of feeling free, he felt terribly lonely and vulnerable. He was particularly grateful for the aid of other free Black persons and abolitionists who helped him find a home in New Bedford. 

This community, and the support it provided for its vulnerable members, motivated Douglass to take a more active role in sustaining it. He describes an incident where a free Black person had a dispute with a fugitive and threatened to betray him; the entire community came together to send the traitor away and protect the fugitive. It is this camaraderie and solidarity that inspired Douglass to move into the public sphere and advocate for the abolition of slavery and the empowerment of free African Americans. He tells of his joy when he was able to pay for a subscription to the Liberator, William Lloyd Garrison’s abolitionist paper. This paper, Douglass attests, “became my meat and my drink. My soul was set all on fire.” And it soon gave him an “idea of the principles, measures, and spirit of the anti-slavery reform.” At the urging of others, he began to speak at churches and abolitionist meetings, and his eloquence and testimony soon made him a popular speaker. 

Community and pointing to the gospel 

Douglass eventually separated himself from Garrison’s paper and speaking circuit and founded his own newspaper, the North Star. In the opening editorial, he situates the paper as a communal endeavor, arguing that the Black community “must be our own representatives and advocates, not exclusively, but peculiarly — not distinct from, but in connection with our white friends.” Thus it will not be committed to an ideology but to a community, which he names as “our long oppressed and plundered fellow countrymen”: “We shall cordially approve every measure and effort calculated to advance your sacred cause, and strenuously oppose any which in our opinion may tend to retard its progress.” Rather than being narrowly antislavery, it will also discuss issues such as “Temperance, Peace, Capital Punishment, Education. . . . While advocating your rights, the North Star will strive to throw light on your duties. [W]hile it will not fail to make known your virtues, it will not shun to discover your faults. To be faithful to our foes it must be faithful to ourselves, in all things.” This language of rights and duties is common in republican discourse, but it emphasizes that Douglass was committed not just to an ideology or an interest group but to the formation of a healthy community. 

Though he disagreed with Garrison about the best political strategy to achieve abolition, Douglass shared Garrison’s religious convictions. One version of the Liberator’s masthead depicts Christ in his role as liberator, proclaiming, “I come to break the bonds of the oppressor.” Similarly, the motto of Douglass’s North Star declares, “Right is of no sex—Truth is of no color—God is the Father of us all, and all we are brethren.” If Douglass belonged to his fellow oppressed countrymen (and women — he was an early supporter of the suffrage movement), he belonged equally to the biblical prophetic tradition. As his biographer David Blight puts it, “Douglass not only used the Hebrew prophets; he joined them.” Douglass consistently “rooted his own story and especially the story of African Americans in the oldest and most powerful stories of the Hebrew prophets.” 

Ultimately, Douglass strove to build a community keyed to the gospel rather than to political trends. He failed at times, getting drawn into heated and sometimes petty political disputes and caring more about wielding political power than about standing as a faithful witness, but the very existence of his papers helped people imagine a community of Christians committed to living out the gospel’s valuation of each person — regardless of their race — as a child of God. Papers like the North Star can help us see those neighbors whom we might otherwise overlook; they can help us imagine ourselves as members of a community that cares about the plight of the enslaved and others who are oppressed and that takes action to participate in God’s ongoing redemptive work. 

Adapted and published with permission from Reading the Times: A Literary and Theological Inquiry into the News, Chapter eight, “Belonging Outside the Public Sphere.”

By / Jul 9

In this episode, Josh, Lindsay, and Brent discuss the assassination of Haiti’s president, how new deaths from covid remain from those who are unvaccinated, a summer Olympics without any spectators, and the winner of the national spelling bee. Lindsay gives a rundown of this week’s ERLC content including Candice Watters with “Do you need a digital reset? A better approach to screen time after the pandemic,” Daniel Patterson with “Why and how reading shapes your soul,” and Hannah Anderson with “At what age should we baptize our children? A case for baptizing those who make a credible profession of faith.”

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  1. Suspects arrested in assassination of Haitian president
  2. Nearly all deaths from Covid in US are among the unvaccinated
  3. In Maryland, all deaths from Covid in June were among unvaccinated
  4. More evidence suggests vaccines protect against delta variant
  5. An Olympic fiasco
  6. Zaila Avant-garde wins national spelling bee

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By / Jul 8

I remember a seminary professor of mine saying once, “The biggest problem most preachers have is they don’t read enough fiction.” I’ll admit, at the time, with all the problems I could list that most churches and pastors experience, a lack of novels was not near the top of my list.

In time, though, I came to realize this professor was right, and more importantly, I came to understand why. I realized, too, that when it comes to moral decision-making, the same holds true. So I’ll propose a similar ally in a quest for understanding and nourishing our moral and ethical frameworks: stories. Here’s why.

Stories speak the soul’s native language.

As humans created in the image of God, we’re hard-wired by God to be drawn toward narrative. This makes sense at one level when you stop and think about the fact that, as creatures, at our most basic level, we are all part of one cosmic story of redemption authored by God himself. We are born with an innate knowledge of this story’s Author (Rom. 1:20). Those of us in Christ have been given a preview of the plot’s culmination and are commissioned to reshape our own lives in light of our role in that final, everlasting chapter.

On another level, we’re created to love stories because God reveals himself to us in story form — and does so for a reason. Think about the nature of Scripture. At Sinai, God dictated the Ten Commandments to Moses. He could have just as easily done that with the entire Bible, giving us a divinely inspired systematic theology textbook. But he didn’t. Instead, he gave us a long and winding story about people and places and problems that often feel quite distant to us. And in spite of that, God tells us this is our story, and challenges us to find our place in it.

Much closer to home, the effect narrative has on us is powerful. Your average boy doesn’t learn about bravery from a daycare lecture on virtue; instead, long before he’s able to spell chivalry, he’s captivated by the hero racing into dark caves to ward off dragons and save the princess — and he’s playacting the same script in the woods and on the playground. More awkwardly, we’re all familiar with “that guy” at the gym —Jock Jams blaring in his ear buds, staring into the mirror between sets admiring his simulated swing as he imagines being the hero who hits the game-winning home run. In both cases, the story and script drill down deeply to the level of one’s own identity and intuitions.

For most, our first exposure to injustice, glory, sacrifice, rescue, heroism, and wickedness is often in some story. And our lives and psyches are shaped in ways we often don’t even realize by the stories we read, superimpose on our lives, and then rehearse in ways big and small. Why is that?

Stories sneak past the fallen soul’s defenses.

In Scripture, there’s a reason that Nathan, when forced to confront King David on his adultery with Bathsheba and subsequent murder of Uriah, told a story about a rich man selfishly stealing a ewe lamb from a poor man. David, not seeing himself as part of this story, is outraged by the audacity of the man. And it’s only at that point that Nathan cries out that “You are the man” in this story, the one you say “deserves to die” because of his wickedness (2 Sam. 12:5). Nathan knows if he leads with an accusation, “You murdered Uriah! How could you?,” he’ll be met with some justification from David, “You don’t understand!” Instead, Nathan abstracts David’s sins and refashions them into a story that gets around the defenses David’s heart has constructed.

You and I, though, do the same thing that David did: we put up defenses that justify whatever actions we take. Any good preaching class uses Nathan as an example of how to preach, because sin has constructed barriers into the human heart to guard it from oncoming accusation. The job of the preacher is to find ways around those defenses.

In the same vein, Jonathan Haidt, in his excellent book The Righteous Mind, argues convincingly that when it comes to moral judgments and decision-making, our intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second. When strategic reasoning does come in, our reasoning acts less like a judge, impartially weighing evidence, but acts instead like a press secretary, immediately seeking to find justifications for decisions.

When we read, then, we do two things at once. On the one hand, we feed our instincts. Stories are uniquely absorbed into our lives and identities in ways that aren’t always easy to perceive. In reading, we don’t merely consume as in visual media. In reading, we engage: we go to different places, experiencing things not available to us in our own localities. We are confronted with difficulties we did not create and thus forced to feel empathy for people and situations we might not otherwise have occasion to consider. On the other hand, when we read we also welcome concepts in through a back door that evade the walls we have constructed in our own hearts. We invite pangs and insights that a sterile and shallow world of our own construction might never otherwise allow to enter in.

Of course, not all stories are nourishing; not all food is healthy. And reading, in and of itself, makes not a more virtuous person. But make no mistake: stories are powerful. As we identify with what we take in, we feed our ethical imaginations and broaden our moral vocabulary — creating categories, carving pathways, and cultivating instincts that show up in hundreds of ways every single day.

If that’s the case, then, as counterintuitive as it may sound, when it comes to moral decision-making, you are what you read.

By / Jun 7

On a rare day away from the kids several years ago, I hurried to a major bookstore. My career as a children’s book author was just beginning, and I felt I could reasonably justify a long, quiet afternoon knee-deep in picture books as “market research.” 

Grabbing 20 or 30 books off the shelves, I eagerly settled in. I didn’t choose them for any particular reason — some I had heard of, many I hadn’t — but all had claimed coveted spots on endcaps or display tables. In other words, these were the most anticipated, critically acclaimed, and best-selling picture books the store had to offer. So even though I wrote for the Christian market and these were general market books, these were the ones I wanted to learn from. 

And learn I did. What I found that day would shape the way I write, read, and choose books for my kids forever. And it wasn’t necessarily good news. 

Not even our children’s books are safe

To my astonishment, roughly 20% of the picture books I had randomly selected off the shelves ended up containing cleverly disguised jabs or outright antagonism toward God, religion in general, or Christianity specifically. While that may not seem overly shocking on the surface (especially considering our current culture) remember this: their target audience was 4 to 8-year-olds. 

From the outside, none of the titles gave any indication that they would be addressing matters of faith in any way. The covers were adorable, the titles clever, the themes silly, the writing excellent. They were doing their job well: enticing children to want to read them and parents, grandparents, and picture book lovers to buy them. Yet tucked within their pages were subtle, but insidious messages: God is a joke. God is a jerk. 

This story is fun. God is not. 

What should this tell us? What we already know. There is a war for our children’s souls, and our enemy does not play fair. Not even our children’s books are safe. 

What would Jesus do? 

What should we do? Why, fight fire with fantastic stories, of course. That’s what Jesus did, after all. Throughout the Gospels, we find Jesus telling stories. Stories of farmers and wayward sons and lost coins and found treasures. Jesus loved to teach truth through tales. 

And because Jesus truly knew his audience — “For he himself knew what was in man” (John 2:25b) — storytelling allowed Jesus to package his message in a way that would reach their specific situations, concerns, and heart-deep motivations. 

When it came to ministering to children, it seems doubtful that Jesus would have switched ministry tactics. Children gravitate to good storytellers, after all. Especially ones that make them laugh. 

Because it’s built into their nature and not explicitly stated in Scripture, we tend not to give it much thought. But as miniature image-bearers of God, a child’s play-seeking, fun-loving default mode must also represent an element of God’s character. If children love fun, then so must God, right? 

Not so sure? Look around.  Since God’s “invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made” (Rom. 1:20), what are we to deduce about God’s character through, for example, his creation of ticklish armpits? Or oh-so-fun-to-chase and easy-to-catch lightening bugs? Or maple seeds that helicopter to the ground? Or (forgive me) the uncouth, but giggle-inducing noises made by excess air leaving the body? 

What should these creations tell us about God? Among other things, he’s no dour-faced, destroyer of fun, that’s for sure. From infancy, God designed us to laugh, just as he also designed things for us to laugh at.

It’s not surprising then that Satan would take what children love — stories, fun, laughter — and use them for his purposes in children’s books. He’s not overly creative in his tactics, after all. He relies on starting with something God created and twisting it. God is a jerk or a joke. Anti-fun or anti-real. Following him is pointless, boring. Joyless. 

Beating the enemy with stories 

And this where we beat the enemy at his own game. It begins in our homes and on our bookshelves. 

1. Start with the ultimate story

God’s redemptive plan from Genesis to Revelation is the most important story we can give our kids. We are ambassadors for Christ, the first ones our children will meet. And what we value, they will value. When God’s Word is regularly quoted in our homes, frequently read from, and naturally applied to everyday situations, our children benefit eternally. 

Though we may wonder sometimes if it’s doing any good, we are promised that God’s Word will do its work. “So shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose it, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it” (Isa. 55:11). 

Giving our children stories of truth from the Bible, spilling over with God’s love and the salvation offered to us through Christ, are the greatest, most important stories we can tell them. Definitely, absolutely we start there. 

2. Follow up with grace-filled, faith-based books

In our desire to reach our children’s hearts with truth, we often supplement Bible stories with faith-based children’s books. This is a good thing. (For me as a Christian children’s book author, this is a very good thing.) 

Sometimes though, in our determination to point our kids to Christ, we act like we don’t know our audience at all. We woefully package our message in didactic tales of warning: Don’t do this. Always do this. Be good. Be good. Be good. We forget that children are all-natural joy-chasers, and that Jesus went to the cross for the joy set before him (Heb. 12:2)! The pursuit of joy is biblical, good, and God-glorifying. 

Therefore, vigilantly avoid books that propagate legalistic moralism. Yes, teach your children to love righteousness and hate wickedness, but give them the why behind it. For joy (Psa. 45:7)! Surround them with stories of grace. Lean heavily on messages of hope. Remind them that it’s through Christ’s righteousness alone that they’ll find forgiveness, purpose, and lasting joy. 

Grace-filled, faith-based books are harder to find in bookstores and libraries, but they’re there. Dig through the shelves. Read the whole book before you buy or check out. Do your homework on that popular book before you “buy it now,” and don’t purchase just because you recognize a celebrity author, Christian publisher, or a famous series. Often times, the best books are not the best-selling books. 

3. And, seriously, make them laugh

Setting those outwardly antagonistic-to-the-faith books aside (which are, thankfully, still in the minority), most general market children’s books do their job well. A lot of giggles can be shared reading The Book with No Pictures or Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus. But why should they have all the fun? 

Several years ago, after a particularly silly moment at a concert of one of my favorite Christian bands, Rend Collective, the lead singer memorably reminded us in the audience, “Seriousness is not a fruit of the Spirit.”

We worship the Creator of truth and of joy. Of salvation and silliness. Of fun and freedom. God isn’t a jerk or a joke; he’s the God of hope. Christian children’s books should be the most hopeful and hilarious books on our shelves. 

As a children’s book author, this is my goal. As Christian parents, this should be our goal too. Give them stories of grace, saturated with unchanging truth. That’s what Jesus would have done. And make them funny, for goodness’ sake. I believe that’s what he would have done too. 

Fight the enemy’s fire with fantastic stories. And have fun doing it. Your children certainly will. 

By / May 5

Italian journalist and novelist Italo Calvino once said, “A classic is a book that never finishes saying what it has to say.” Even those who don’t enjoy Greek literature can understand Odysseus’ desire to return home in The Iliad. And though it is unlikely that our own decade will be as decadent as the 1920s, all who read The Great Gatsby can understand the desire of the title character to reinvent yourself and overcome your past. 

In her new series of edited classics, Karen Swallow Prior, professor of English and Christian & Culture at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, invites readers to return to (or read for the first time) works that continue to ask and answer questions of modern readers. We are not the first to ask questions about the relationship between science and religion, identity, and the juxtaposition of true faith and nominal Christianity. In returning to these great works of literature, Prior hopes to give readers a chance to wrestle with those questions in new ways guided by their Christian faith. 

Why did you choose the four stories so far in the series? Is there something unique about these four: Heart of Darkness, Sense and Sensibility, Jane Eyre, Frankenstein?

First of all, I chose from works in the public domain so as to avoid copyright questions and expenses. Fortunately, my area of expertise centers on literature that is well within those bounds. From there, I chose works that I know and love well. Narrowing it down to just six from there was still rather difficult! Ultimately, I wanted to choose works that wrestle with questions and themes that are particularly relevant to the church right now.

And to be totally transparent, I wanted to choose some works that I thought would be likely to appeal to male readers since so much evidence indicates that Christian men read fiction far less than other genres. Classic literature is for everyone.

Are there any books that you are hoping to include in the series in the future?

The last two books in the series will be Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy and The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne. They will release in March 2022.

One thing that I think stands out about these editions is not just the text, but the way the physical book is itself a piece of care and craft. Is there a deeper reason for this, or is it only a decorative decision? How does having the book in a bound and beautiful text help to also shape the reader? 

One of the keys to understanding literature — and all art, really — is that form is everything. As Marshall McLuhan would say, “The medium is the message.” From the start, this project was envisioned as one that would bring beautiful stories to the reader — and to the church — in a beautiful form. Now, to be clear, I have no problem with cheap paperback versions of classics and own many myself. (They are perfect for carrying around to class or reading in the swimming pool.) But the market is overwhelmed with these editions. And while gorgeous clothbound editions of the classics are available from other publishers, as far as I know, none have been produced by any publisher for Christian readers specifically. 

My publishing team and I put a great deal of thought into the cover colors, design, finish, the paper, the ribbon marker, and even the font. (The font and page layout were improved even more with the second set.) These are volumes to own for a lifetime and to pass down. My copies join books on my shelves that have done the same, books that are now 100 or 200 years old.

Each of the introductions to the books concludes with the “Reading as a Christian” section. Why did you include that? What are practices you would encourage Christians do when reading fiction? Is there a Christian way to read or perspective that Christians should have when reading?

In my book, On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life through Great Books, I focus more on the practices and habits that can improve our reading. In this series, through both this part of each introduction and later in the discussion questions (since I have committed to having no plot spoilers in the introductions), I talk about the themes that have particular relevance to us as Christians. These themes are, as I mentioned above, part of the reason I chose each work. 

Of course, great books are relevant to all people in all times because their greatness is in the way they capture universal themes. Most classics are published and edited by scholars who either aren’t Christians or may even be hostile to the Christian backdrop of these works. These books offer a different perspective than what is commonly out there today.

The story of Frankenstein and his monster is both a horror story and science fiction. In this genre, there seems to be a warning about trusting too much in the power and goodness of science devoid of a larger framework. What cautions does this offer to a modern audience faced with a rapidly advancing technical age where what was fantastical can become commonplace in the matter of a few years? 

This question is one that I think makes Frankenstein timelier than ever. As I explain in the introduction, the premise of the story was not as far-fetched as it might seem since similar kinds of experiments and questions were common at the time. The central question the novel asks — what is the responsibility of a creator (or Creator) toward his creation — is ever more pressing. Frankenstein helps us to see that science is never just for the sake of science — it is an attempt to fulfill deeper human needs and desires. And it is those we need to address in the ways that only our Creator can, even as science allows us to improve human lives and human flourishing. Undertaken apart from our true purpose as human beings, however, science can also bring harm and destruction.

You say that the most unsettling part of Frankenstein is not the story, but the way it is told: nested stories and unreliable narrators. Why is that more unsettling than a reanimated corpse driven by passions? Do you see any corollaries in our own moment of how the unreliable narrators of our cultural stories contribute to the sense of unease?

I have lived more than half a century. I have taught for many years literature that spans many centuries. And yet, I never imagined myself living in a time when truth — even simple facts — could be so contested, debated, and unreliable. We are living in a time when so many competing narrators are vying for our attention and confidence that it is increasingly difficult to know what is true. Both Frankenstein (and, perhaps, even more Heart of Darkness, another book in the series) demonstrate the limits of human perspective and knowledge. 

We are wise to understand, then, that our limited understanding must be measured against the only reliable source of truth we have — God and his Word. We are our own unreliable narrators. But by God’s grace, we can see ourselves within the context of his story. Reading other people’s stories helps to realize our need to do so.

The introduction to Frankenstein notes the importance of the virtues in this story. Your previous book, On Reading Well, was devoted to the study of the virtues through literature. How does literature in general help us to learn and practice the virtues? How does Frankenstein specifically do that?

First time readers might be surprised to learn what a central place virtue has in Frankenstein. It is a recurring theme that demands the reader’s attention by asking us to find that moderation between the various excesses and deficiencies displayed in the novel. When does the zeal for knowledge become a vice rather than a virtue? When does the desire for justice cease to be a virtuous pursuit? What can a world which lacks the influence of women (one half of the human race) become? There are so many things out of balance in the story that it demands that readers seek the virtuous mean.

You say that it was the ordinariness of Jane Eyre that made the novel extraordinary. What do you mean by that? How was it both ordinary and revolutionary for its time?

In their early history, novels tended to be over-the-top, variously, in their sharp humor, their moral earnestness, or their amorous exploits. While drawing on both the Romantic and didactic traditions that came before it, Jane Eyre is more realistic than nearly all its literary predecessors. While it has some unrealistic (and even unsatisfactory) plot elements, the heart of the story is the voice and character of this very “plain Jane” who is so very human in her desire to have a place and people to belong to, to be with someone she loves, and to be a faithful Christian. Jane was revolutionary because she willed these things and she willed them passionately, refusing to accept injustice in a world in which justice was available only to the few who had power and wealth.

Christianity is a pervasive theme in Jane Eyre. Some early critics thought it was an attack on faith, and yet you say that Christianity created Jane Eyre. What accounts for this tension? How can reading this novel help modern readers understand our own nominally Christian context?

Well, you hit the nail on the head in the last part of this question. Jane Eyre was an attack — a powerful attack — on nominal Christianity. Those trapped within nominal Christianity took it as an attack on the real thing. Then, as now, it was, and is, difficult to separate mere convention from truly biblical principles. It is difficult for people in any time to see outside the context of their times, beyond their moral blind spots. But just as Nathan so effectively helped David to see his great sin by telling a parallel story about another man’s sin, so, too, literature about other times and places can help us see the truth by seeing it sideways. It’s easy for us to see now in the world of Jane Eyre where Christians got so many things wrong. The real test is seeing where they are wrong in our own time.

The question of self and identity are core themes in the life of Jane, specifically how an individual must “forge an identity,” a uniquely modern problem (and one that is also present in Frankenstein in the monster’s journey). What in this novel speaks to the way that a modern reader will understand that yearning for identity? Does the novel fully answer the question of identity? 

The novel doesn’t fully answer the question of identity. It would not be a great novel if it attempted to! Rather, good art invites us to see, to perceive, to consider. Indeed, even the ending of the novel (no spoilers!) is one some people find dissatisfying, which I think makes the novel all the better. For in this fallen world, we will not find perfect satisfaction. 

This question of identity that Jane Eyre wrestles with was one that was emerging when the novel was written. Nearly two centuries later, the question has only become more complicated and fraught. As our culture becomes more fractured and polarized, the shards of our identity have less to hold them together. This makes the hope of the gospel — and an identity in Christ — all the more satisfying and real. Jane understood that — yet still had to work it out in her life, just as we must as well.

By / Apr 29

Classic literature is not where we are likely to turn when looking to learn leadership principles. However, fiction is a constructive way for leaders to grow. Almost any great work of literature is worthwhile for leaders. In my experience, many leaders, particularly Christian leaders, neglect literary fiction to read books that are seemingly more practical (i.e., books on leadership). While literature seems less practical, it is often more useful in the long term. 

Literature helps shape virtue, which is essential for any meaningful or lasting leadership. Good stories stick with us and shape us consciously and subconsciously. Leaders need to be people of virtue and strong character. Literature also helps us cultivate empathy by seeing things from someone else’s perspective. 

As a general tip for reading fiction for those with little experience, I suggest finding some topic of interest and looking for a novel somehow related (for example, if you are interested in studying military history, you may enjoy All Quiet on the Western Front). As you read more, you will likely find your tastes expand, and you will become interested in reading widely.

The literary corpus is so large; where does someone begin? In particular, where does someone unaccustomed to reading fiction begin? I am going to share a few works that I believe would be helpful and accessible. I do not think these are the only works, or even necessarily the best works, but I do believe each of these works has incredible value and would be a decent place to begin.

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

The Remains of the Day is a powerful novel about an English butler reflecting on life near his career’s end. While he has enjoyed and been honored by his career, he laments having missed out on relationships and opportunities by investing so deeply in his work. This novel is brilliantly captivating and a powerful reminder for leaders as they contemplate their work and their lives. It is easy for a leader to pour one’s life into one’s work at the expense of several vital things, including loving their families and growing in spiritual maturity. This novel offers wisdom into that topic.

Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare

Julius Caesar is loosely based on the historical assassination of Julius Caesar. This is one you likely read in high school (or were at least assigned). This play shows readers the stakes in leading well, making decisions for others, and the consequences of those choices. Shakespeare understood the human condition as well as any other English-speaking author, and he forces readers to wrestle with the essence of our identity, how we separate personal preferences from the greater good, and much more. Leaders must often make choices with no clear right or easy answer, and Shakespeare captures that reality in Julius Caesar

The Odyssey by Homer

The Odyssey is likely the most challenging book on this list, but the payoff is immeasurable for those willing to invest in it. Part of the challenge is that The Odyssey is epic poetry. Finding the right translation is helpful in making it through this one; I recommend Richmond Lattimore’s translation, but there are several other worthy translations. Odysseus is trying to make his way home to Ithaca after the Trojan War, and his journey is filled with detour after detour. Odysseus is known for his cunning, but he also makes the occasional bad decision. On his journey, he tries to remain faithful to his wife and his quest while also protecting his men, but he also experiences failure and loss. There are lessons to learn from Odysseus by positive and negative examples, and Homer covers so many topics throughout this great epic, it is worth reading several times.

The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien

I would likely favor having The Lord of the Rings on this list over The Hobbit, but that is a much greater undertaking. It may seem silly to include a children’s book, particularly a fantastical one. However, I hold the conviction that stories worth reading to children are at least as valuable for adults to read. The Hobbit follows an unlikely, unqualified hero, Bilbo Baggins, on a journey to reclaim treasure guarded by a dragon. Along the way, Bilbo must find courage and virtue in himself to achieve success. The most important thing for a leader is to have strong character, and this novel can help cultivate wisdom and virtue. If a tiny hobbit can face dire challenges to save his friends and experience success, so can we.

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Pride and Prejudice is sometimes viewed as being a love story, but it is so much more. This novel interacts with human identity and how we are uniquely created. The characters don’t always fit their family’s or society’s expectations. This tension forces introspection in readers — leaders must come to terms with their strengths and weaknesses to lead well. This book also reminds us that first impressions aren’t always accurate, and leaders need to be compassionate and slow to make judgments. Good leaders are attentive and listen well.

The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas

Total disclosure: this is my favorite work of fiction. I hesitated to mention it because the novel’s unabridged version is over 1,000 pages, which would make it a difficult place to start. But few other works deal with as many issues as beautifully as this one. Edmond Dantes is cruelly wronged but experiences growth in the process. This novel highlights what it means to hold on to hope, even amid hardship for many years. Dumas also deals with themes of forgiveness, justice, mercy, and redemption in this beautiful narrative.

Leaders often overlook classic literature for books about self-improvement and leadership growth. Yet, classic works of fiction offer inspiration and insight, shaping us through narrative. Next time you look for fresh books for your personal development, consider some of these great works of classic literature.

By / Apr 2

In this episode, Josh, Lindsay, and Brent discuss declining church membership, the Suez Canal, Pfizer’s vaccine for children, the fourth wave of coronavirus, abortion legislature in Kentucky, Kanakuk Kamps, and Opening Day. Lindsay gives a rundown of this week’s ERLC content including Jason Thacker with “Why reading books you disagree with helps you grow,” Emily Richards with “Why building connection and trust is vital for vulnerable children: The gospel in Show Hope’s Pre+Post Adoption Support,” and Adrian Warnock with “10 things you should know about the Resurrection.” Also in this episode, the hosts are joined by Casey Hough for a conversation about life and ministry. 

About Casey

Casey serves as the Lead Pastor of Copperfield Church in Houston, Texas. Casey actively writes for various evangelical outlets, serving primarily as an Associate Research Fellow and Religious Liberty Channel Editor for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. He is a fellow in the St. Peter Fellowship of the Center for Pastor Theologians. In addition to his role at Copperfield, Casey serves as an Assistant Professor of Biblical Interpretation at Luther Rice College and Seminary. In the past, Casey has taught Old Testament, New Testament, Comparative Religions, and Philosophy at a regional junior college in Arkansas. Casey and his wife, Hannah, have three sons and two daughters. You can connect with him on Twitter: @caseybhough or his website. You can subscribe to his newsletter here

ERLC Content

Culture

  1. Church members are minority in U.S. for first time, Gallup says
  2. With the Suez Canal Unblocked, the World’s Commerce Resumes Its Course
  3. Pfizer says its COVID-19 vaccine is 100% effective in children ages 12-15
  4. The fourth wave is here
  5. Legislature passes constitutional amendment declaring no right to abortion in KY
  6. Kanakuk Kamps Abuse Reexamined In New Report
  7. America’s pastime returns

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By / Mar 29

Amidst the constant distractions and shallowness on social media, reading a book can serve as a reprieve from the onslaught of information and as a way to challenge yourself to go deeper than 280 characters. Social media draws us in because it leads us to think we are staying connected with others, keeping up with what is going on around the world, and often takes less concentration than picking up a book. But these tools are constantly discipling us to seek expediency over the long process of learning and variety over sustained concentration. And with each click, scroll, or flick of the thumb, we are usually only being exposed to ideas that fit our preconceived beliefs about the world.

However, picking up a book that you know you will disagree with can help you understand another’s perspective and clarify why you hold to another position. This doesn’t mean that you run to just any book, but as you grow more comfortable with ideas, you can expose yourself to contrary positions in order to strengthen your own.

Understanding your neighbor

As part of my doctoral program in ethics, I recently picked up a copy of Peter Singer’s classic work Practical Ethics. This was the first time I read Singer’s work myself, but I was familiar with his line of argument for a particular form of ethical evaluation called preference utilitarianism. Singer has made waves in ethical and philosophical circles for decades, often making controversial claims about the nature of personhood and abortion, animal rights, and embryo experimentation. Originally published in 1979, the work has been reprinted countless times. Singer released two updated editions in 1993 and 2011. The book has become a staple in ethics courses across academic disciplines and has influenced countless readers, shaping their approach to ethics and morality.

As one who hopes to teach and continue to study in this field, I am behooved to be aware of these classic works and to be intimately familiar with their arguments. In so doing, I am able to better understand those around me and the true nature of the debates surrounding complex ethical decisions about the rise of technology, medicine, economics, and other social issues. Regardless of whether or not you plan to specialize in a field of study, being exposed to seminal works across a variety of disciplines can open up a world of ideas and a comprehension of your neighbors that is more than worth the time and effort.

One of the most devastating effects of the culture wars happening all around us, especially on online platforms like social media, is that we are often told that we need to be protected from the world of ideas or that reading something outside of our own beliefs might lead us down a path of destruction. While this is understandable to some extent, this siloing effect is dangerous to the life of the mind and treats the very concept of understanding our neighbors as a bridge too far.

Do we really think so little of our ability to think and reason that we cannot engage divergent positions or even allow them in the public square? Frequent examples of this are seen in our society such as Amazon delisting a book on transgenderism because it deviates from the secular orthodoxy on sexuality and the derision of entire concepts out of fear of being brainwashed. This happens on both sides of the political aisle. But one of the simplest things we can to ratchet down the tensions with our neighbors and seek to love them as ourselves is to put down our phones, pick up a book, and have an honest and humble conversation with someone who disagrees with our position on a particular topic. Living in a constant cycle of outrage shapes us into more cynical people and prevents us from growing in our faith. I am not saying that all ideas are equally valid, but regardless of what you take away from a book, it is worth the time and effort to comprehend your neighbor’s beliefs and engage them on their own terms.

Understand why you disagree

One of the joys of reading is growing in knowledge about the world around us, including those to whom we are called to minister and share the hope of the gospel with. But a second and extremely important reason behind reading things we disagree agree with is for our own personal growth. Over the years, I have found that I grow more by reading books outside of my own tribe than only reading those with whom I mostly agree. This is because when we are challenged in our own beliefs, we often dig deeper as we wrestle with various ideas and beliefs.

When reading or engaging the world of ideas, I am often reminded of the words of the Apostle Peter in 1 Peter 3:14-16 (emphasis mine):

“But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame.”

Reading books that you do not agree with or believe to be true can help sharpen your own ability to “make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you.” Not only will it push you to understand your own beliefs better, but it will also equip you to engage those around you in good conscience and faith.

Recently, I was reading a work by evangelical scholar Carl F.H. Henry and was struck by how he talked about divergent ideas. Henry was quick to give credit to various thinkers when they picked up a thread of truth. In his classic work, Christian Personal Ethics, he wrote that the “world did not need to wait for Utilitarianism to assert that benevolence is good, that whatever imperiled the public good was not virtuous, that true morality tends to the welfare of the social whole. The revealed morality of the Bible had affirmed all of this.” As I read his examinations of those ideas, it became clear that he was not afraid to engage ideas contrary to his own. Not only did this equip him to better understand the world around him, but it clearly helped strengthen his own convictions about the nature of truth, morality, and even the gospel itself.

So go grab a book, a cup of coffee, and a friend to dialogue with as you engage the world of ideas and grow in your ability to interact with contrary positions, all for the sake of loving others and sharing the transformative truth of the gospel message with your neighbor.

Subscribe here to receive ERLC’s WeeklyTech newsletter, a Monday morning briefing on technology and ethics from Jason Thacker.

By / Mar 23

In Louis L’Amour’s memoir, Education of a Wandering Man, he recounts the books he read over many years. These lists are significant for L’Amour. He read over 100 books most years. What is a man to gain from spending that much time devoted to reading? And if he decided reading is a worthwhile activity, how should one go about it?

Gene Veith, a literature professor and writer, would argue that reading is an important way to spend one’s time, especially for Christians. In his book, Reading Between the Lines: A Christian Guide to Literature, Veith helps readers understand how to read across different genres and time periods. But Veith’s apologetic for reading is so much more than just a guide to literature. Veith not only tells readers how to read but why we should even care to be readers. There’s a good chance that many haven’t thought about the terms Veith defines and explains since the last time they wrote a literary analysis was for an English class. With clear prose and astute assessments of history and culture, this isn’t a book just for the English major. Reading Between the Lines is a potent book for anyone who wants to be a better reader and thinker.

Reading and criticism 

Veith begins by discussing the importance of reading and criticism. Since God has used a Book to reveal himself, “reading can never die out among Christians” (17). The habits of the mind––attention, reasoning, exploration of ideas, and language expression, among others––that reading requires are habits that “support the Christian faith and lead to a healthy and free society” (25). Reading also helps form the Christian imagination by exercising our minds, helping us understand other people and their circumstances, satisfying our need for adventure, and allowing us to process and contemplate vicarious experiences. 

But Veith warns readers frankly about the indulgence of vicarious sin. And that’s where our criticism of books (and art in general) is essential. Does a work point us to the good and depict sin as evil? Reading good books should lead the reader to love the things God loves and hate the things God hates.

The forms of literature

The second section of the book considers the forms of literature: nonfiction, fiction, and poetry. When we think of nonfiction, we might think of a how-to manual or an encyclopedia, which we wouldn’t classify as good literature. However, Veith argues that good nonfiction reveals its meaning with beautiful language. Using Walter Wangerin Jr. and Annie Dillard as examples of great writers, Veith shows how good nonfiction will be concrete and tell the truth as it paints pictures with words. 

Fiction also tells the truth, though in a different way. While some claim fiction is nothing more than entertainment, Veith argues that “stories teach not by being preachy or tacking on a moral at the end, but by being good gripping stories” (61). He helps readers understand the elements of fiction while also circling back to some of his ideas of criticism and discernment. 

The final form of literature he examines is poetry. It is a shame that few people enjoy reading poetry in their leisure time. Poetry transcends time and place and is an important part of human expression. He argues, “Because poetry tends to address the whole person––the mind, the imagination, and the emotion––there may be no better way to cultivate a Christian sensibility and worldview (apart from reading Scripture) itself than to saturate oneself in Christian poetry” (80). 

What literature does

Veith shifts from considering what literature is to exploring what literature does. The modes of literature––tragedy, comedy, realism, and fantasy––help us understand this broken world we live in and the life yet to come. Although they seem like opposites, tragedy and comedy have much to say about damnation and salvation and the relationship between suffering and joy. Realism (taking ideas from the world around us) and fantasy (taking ideas from the world within us) can increase our perception of the people around us and the events transpiring. For example, Oliver Twist, a realist novel, moved people to act as their eyes were opened to the poor children that had been around them all along. Similarly, fantasy “elevates and disciplines the imagination, awakening it readers to the beauty of goodness as well as to the reclusiveness of evil” (132).

A window into worldviews

In the final section of book, Veith offers insight on how to read and understand authors from the Middle Ages through Postmodernism. Unlike any other medium, literature gives us a window to the worldview and culture of the times. Veith’s examination of the philosophy and worldview of different ages sheds light on how the Christian worldview will allow us to uphold the insights of the books of these eras “while avoiding their errors” (190). Reading literature from outside our context can also present ideas in a fresh and clear way, even though the text may be hundreds of years old. As we read literature of times long ago, we will better understand the time in which we live.

We should care to be good readers. Reading good literature will help sharpen our minds and stir our hearts’ affections for the things we ought to love. Reading Between the Lines is a valuable book for those who want to grow as readers and thinkers and offers enough book recommendations to last a long time. As we seek to influence the world with the good news of the gospel, we should remember that “the wielders of influence will always be those who read and write” (25).

By / Mar 22

News consumption does not merely inform us, it forms us, argues Jeffrey Bilbro in his new book Reading the Times: A Literary and Theological Inquiry Into the News. Our daily scrolling of the news may seem routine, but it shapes our sense of who we are, our values, and how we see the world we live in. As such, Bilbro calls readers to gain perspective on the nature and purpose of news and the power it has to shape and form communities around its content. Reading the Times helpfully suggests practices, or “liturgies,” to offset the side-effects of our media-saturated habits and cultivate healthier rhythms of life and reading. Below are some of the insights Bilbro shared from his important book on our relationship with the news. 

Your latest book is a “literary and theological inquiry into the news.” What is the purpose of news, and why do we need a practical theology for how we consume it?

Part of the challenge with considering how to understand and relate to what we might classify as “the news” is that it serves so many roles in our lives today. The news can give useful information about the weather or local happenings; it can provoke outrage; it can help us understand complex and ongoing events like a pandemic or climate change or economic trends; it can amuse; it can foster a sense of community among those who share particular moral convictions or cultural affinities; it can relieve boredom; and it can direct our attention toward particular people or events. Some of these purposes are good and some aren’t so good. 

In this book, I reflect on how our citizenship in heaven and God’s call to love our neighbor might shape how we attend to contemporary affairs. What do we need to know to love our neighbors well? Or, to frame the question differently, to what do we need to attend in order to live faithfully in this place and in this time?

The title is inspired by a Henry David Thoreau quote, “Read not the Times, Read the Eternities.” What is the significance of this Thoreau’s words today?

Thoreau was writing during a time of rapid technological change when the telegraph and other technologies were rapidly increasing the speed and reach of the news. People were becoming inundated with information about distant events, and it was difficult to discern what they should pay attention to. Thoreau warned that our human tendency is to get distracted by unimportant, titillating news: he jokes that when the transatlantic telegraph cable is in place, “perchance the first news that will leak through into the broad, flapping American ear will be that the Princess Adelaide has the whooping cough.” In response to this altered information ecosystem, Thoreau recommended dedicating most of our attention to words and ideas, and stories that have stood the test of time. 

In many respects, Thoreau’s advice parallels what the Apostle Paul writes in Philippians: “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” If we are rooted in these eternal verities, we will be better able to discern which contemporary events are important for us to know about and how we should respond to them.

What are chronos and kairos, and how does the tension between these understandings of time affect how we interpret current events?

Chronos is basically our modern understanding of time as quantifiable duration. It’s linear and sequential. Kairos names a kind of propitious time, time that is right for a certain action: it’s time to plant a crop, time to drink a cup of coffee, time to celebrate Easter. Chronos names the horizontal timeline on which human history plays out, and kairos names the pattern of God’s redemptive work within creation. Christians are caught between these two times. The Old Testament prophets provide good examples of how to navigate this tension as they connect particular, historical injustice or sin with the recurring acts of divine judgment and redemption. 

Phrases like “the wrong side of history” or “the arc of history” indicate that chronos is the horizon against which the morality of particular events can be judged, and they suggest that humans are somehow morally progressing as history unfolds. Christians should be skeptical, I think, of this Hegelian view of historical progress, and such a view of time can lead us to overvalue the news. What happens in history does matter, but it matters not because it can be slotted into some arc of moral improvement. Rather, events matter because they are part of God’s ongoing work in his creation. The prophets judge current affairs against that divine pattern of action: idolatry or economic inequality is not on the wrong side of history, but they are on the wrong side of God’s character and commands. So the prophets—and the later heirs of this prophetic tradition—can guide us toward a better way of assessing the significance of current events. To put it in the terms of Thoreau’s dictum, they judge the times on the basis of the eternities.

You’ve included “liturgies” that media consumers can practice to offset common maladies tied to news intake. Why did you decide to include this in the book? What is one example of a helpful practice?

I’ve been encouraged by the recent theological retrieval of the importance of liturgies. The church has long known that what we habitually do with our bodies shapes our thinking, and more people seem to be remembering this reality of human nature. If we check our social media feeds the first thing each morning, we’ll inadvertently base our emotional posture toward the day on the latest outrageous story. If the TV is on in the background of our living rooms, it becomes the backdrop against which we understand the meaning of our lives. So the liturgies I recommend are meant to invite readers to reflect on how they might practice their theological convictions regarding the news—and how in turn their practices might be shaping their theological convictions. 

For instance, the simple act of taking a walk through your neighborhood can recalibrate your attention away from the distant dramas playing out on a screen and toward the neighbors among whom you live. What is happening in this place and with these people? What might you need to know to dwell more faithfully and redemptively here? We may still need to read and learn about events happening far away, but regularly walking among and talking to our neighbors might help us better understand the relative importance of distant events.

How can Christians better practice discernment while consuming the news?

Discernment is not an individual skill we can hone with a few mental tricks or technological hacks. It’s a communally-formed habit of mind. As I write in the book, belonging well precedes thinking well. Social psychologists such as Daniel Kahneman and Jonathan Haidt have argued—persuasively, I think—that the vast majority of our reactions and decisions are based on socially-formed intuitions and biases rather than on deliberate, careful reasoning. If we imagine ourselves belonging primarily to a political party or an ideological group, we’ll filter all that we read through this identity. As Christians, however, our primary community should be the Church. We’ll be better able to discern the significance of the news that we read to the extent that we are formed as members of Christ’s body.

You discuss the ways that online and public communities have affected us in a digital age. What do you mean when you say, “What we really need is to be shaped by embodied communities that are rooted outside the public sphere and its unhealthy dynamics”?

Particularly in the wake of COVID-19, more and more of our relationships are mediated digitally. Some online communities can be genuinely life-giving, but the digital public square tends to foster unhealthy forms of belonging: it encourages swarms of outrage, virtue-signaling, and moral grandstanding rather than the patient, difficult work of building lasting friendships. We need such friendships and thick communities, however, both for the sake of our own spiritual formation and to help guide us as we seek to love our neighbors and participate redemptively in our broader communities. I point to Dorothy Day and Frederick Douglass as two examples of Christians who belonged well to embodied communities and wrote and published for a wider audience on the basis of that belonging.  

You can order Reading the Times: A Literary and Theological Inquiry into the News here