Book Review: Poor Richard’s Retirement

Aaron Clarey, Poor Richard’s Retirement: Retirement for Everyday Americans

Aaron Clarey is a consultant and independent economist who writes books that are meant to help young men and women make wiser financial choices. His approach is no nonsense, gruff, and often cynical. But despite seeming like a complete jerk, his advice which is free on his blog or youtube channel clearly comes from a big heart (for sensitive users or those who may listen w/children around, he does curse a lot). This is evident when he, for instance, criticizes parents who don’t spend a great deal of time with their children (this is a common thread in his books and podcasts and I only listen to them a couple of times a year).

I disagree with a great deal of his material, but it’s because he’s not religious and I’m a Christian. But his grasp of markets, how they work, and what personal steps are necessary for success are second to none.

That being said, if you’re a millennial, especially one who graduated college between 2007-2010, you’ve probably wondered how in the heck you could ever retire. If so, Clarey’s book has everything you need. It contains a helpful explanation of steps one can take in order to get ready for retirement, but does something a great many similar books don’t do. He reframes what it means to live a life of meaning with a personal sense of significance. The book amounts to a sort of secular explanation of Jesus’ saying that we should “…take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.”

I think the argument he makes, though it veers toward cynicism is worth reading in full because of its rhetorical effect. So I won’t explain it.

The practical tips he gives are excellent. His solution to the problem of retirement is ultimately satisfying (more on that below). And he does run some of the numbers comparing costs in previous generations of those of ye olde current year in a way that is helpful and potentially guilt inducing.

Worthwhile quotes:

  1. Understand this and understand this clearly. Most two-income families are: Outsourcing the upbringing of their own children To complete strangers Passing up on seeing their children grow up So BOTH parents can work jobs they don’t like While suffering commutes that keep them from their families AND stressing themselves out in the process. (47)
  2. We engage in the rat race, pursuing pointless educations, for taxing careers, life-wasting commutes, just to buy stuff, pointless material things, while abandoning anything and anybody that really matters in life.  It’s the cause of the majority of divorces in the country, the majority of unvisited parents in nursing homes, and is ultimately responsible for all the country’s financial problems.  And to throw the burden of saving for retirement on top of Americans’ inability to just keep it together, only makes an already-miserable situation impossible to bear. (48-49)
  3. It is a full – time job to go and seek out new and interesting people who are going to make your life worth living. (134)

Conclusion

Ultimately, Clarey’s essay on retirement is an admirable little book in that it accomplishes three things:

  1. Instructs you not to retire.
  2. Tells you how to retire.
  3. Subverts the present day value system.

With respect to number three, I’ll wax philosophical. One of the reasons that a capitalist style economy can work is if Adam Smith’s moral sentiments are assumed. Capitalism helps provide a wide degree of freedom to people who pursue a sort of Aristotelian/Christian/Stoic vision of the good life wherein virtue is paramount, social trust is assumed, and while the particulars of an individual’s pursuit of wealth and greatness may vary, they typically revolve around family, invention, adventure, and philanthropy. Such a system of values simply is not broadly assumed in Western Civilization, and so capital itself is perceived as the highest and total good for man.

Clarey, an irreligious capitalist, sees this problem as a source of poverty and unhappiness and attempts to solve it by reorienting the value system of his audience. For this the book is worth ten times the price. Buy it for graduating seniors, read it if you’re in college, use it to get out of debt. It’s a good book.

Book Review: The Gospel of Happiness

Book Review: The Gospel of Happiness: Rediscover Your Faith Through Spiritual Practices and Positive Psychology by Christopher Kaczor

Introduction

I found out about this book from twitter, when James K.A. Smith mentioned anticipating it’s release. I had never heard of the author before, but he’s an ethics professor with his PhD from Notre Dame.

The aim of the book is stated on page 18:

In this book, I highlight the many ways in which positive psychology and Christian practice overlap. I point out empirical findings in positive psychology that point to the wisdom of many Christian practices and teachings. I also provide practical suggestions on how to become happier in everyday life and how to deepen Christian practice based on contemporary psychological insights. All of this points us toward deeper fulfillment in this life, and in the life to come. This is why I titled this book The Gospel of Happiness – because this is good news, very good news indeed (18).

The argument is fairly obvious from chapter to chapter. The chapter titles are:

  1. The Ways to Happiness
  2. The Way of Faith, Hope, and Love
  3. The Way of Prayer
  4. The Way of Gratitude
  5. The Way of Forgiveness
  6. The Way of Virtue
  7. The Way of Willpower

Dr. Kaczor looks at the relevant psychological research concerning each topic as well the Biblical and historical teachings of Christianity and shows their coherence and overlap. After he makes these comparisons he makes recommendations for personal practice.

The Bad
I really found very little objectionable in the book. Perhaps a more New Testament studies oriented definition of the word gospel would have been nice. The gospel is not merely, “good news” because it makes us happy. It is good news because it is an announcement about God’s kingdom. But this weakness is forgivable because the author isn’t a New Testament scholar. Also, it makes very little practical difference to the content of the rest of the book.

There are two formatting issues though: the book uses endnotes which are as annoying as having socks full of fire ants. Also, there is no index. An index would have been wonderful.

The Good
Where shall I begin? For starters, the book takes on Nietzsche’s notion that Christianity makes people weak, miserable, and stupid (183). Many Christians feel guilty about pursuing happiness, power, or success and I think that this comes from adopting a Nietzschean understanding of Christian ethics instead of Biblical one.

Another wonderful aspect of the book is the content of the endnotes. The amount of helpful literature cited is a great library builder.

More importantly though is the content of the book. As stated above the author means to show how positive psychology and Christian teaching over lap and offer practical advice for improving happiness. I’ll summarize the first chapter to show how the author does this so that you can see that he performs his objective admirably:

The Ways to Happiness
In this chapter, Kazcor uses Martin Seligman’s PERMA definition of happiness and shows how Christian teaching and practice, at its best, fulfills the requirements of each piece of the puzzle (21). It is important to recognize that Kaczor and Seligman define happiness as flourishing and well-being, not merely as positive emotion (as you’ll see). PERMA stands for positive emotions, engagement, relationships, meaning, and achievement (21). Here are summaries of Kaczor’s explanation of each.

  1. Positive Emotions
    Kaczor cites several lines of research that indicate that religious people generally have higher positive emotion than irreligious people (22-23). He does observe that Christians are “called to love God and neighbor regardless how they may be feeling at the moment” (24). He also observes that doing the right thing while experiencing negative emotions is harder. I would add that Kant would say that makes it even more moral. Essentially, Kazcor notes that since we know the our emotions impact others and how we make decisions, we are obligated to care about fostering positive emotions in ourselves in ways that are not contrary to the Christian life. In doing this, we are able to foster well-being and emotional happiness in others (26). What I wish he did observe here was that doing the right thing for our neighbor can lead to positive emotions (he does say this on pages 66-67).
  2. Engagement
    Engagement is our flow or activation of our strengths in order to accomplish some task. Kaczor reminds readers that in Genesis, man was made to “tend the garden.” With this in mind, he notes the importance of legitimate work as a way of experiencing unity with God (29). I’ve written about this  myself.
  3. Relationships
    Seligman’s taxonomy of happiness includes relationships as a “rock-bottom fundamental of human well-being” (30). Kaczor here writes about the obvious place of human relationships in the teachings of Jesus. His main focus here is Jesus’ command to “love one another as I have loved you” (John 13:24). I would have added the importance of embedded personality in ancient thought is simply assumed in the Bible, so much so that while individuals are responsible for their actions, their identity is not merely related to achievements like in Proverbs, but it is linked integrally to their community associations (in Christ, the body of Christ, the church of God, etc).
  4. Meaning
    Kazcor notes that Seligman defines meaning as “belonging to and serving something you believe is better than the self” (32). Kaczor points to the subjective experience of Christian obedience in small things as a level of meaning added to people who aren’t famous for their contributions to the world (33). He also notes the objective question of whether or not anything actually has meaning and notes that Christianity claims to offer objective meaning to the life of the Christian and to explain the objective meaning of the cosmos and human existence in general. If Christianity is true, then meaning is provided for like Paul says, “your work in the Lord is not in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:58).
  5. Achievement
    Here Kaczor notes the importance of feeling successful for human happiness, but also notes the traps that Christian morality trains us to avoid: greed, vanity, and social comparison which are all things that positive psychology notes do not actually contribute to overall happiness (40). In my opinion, many Christians are so concerned to talk about God’s grace saving us from sin despite our failure to do good works that they fail to talk about the importance of tackling small and big tasks for God, neighbor, and self in order to be happy. But the Bible does say that with toil there is profit and with mere talk there is only poverty. Paul also approves of a certain measure of pleasure in spiritual growth (Gal 6:4).

Conclusion
Over all I find the book to be a wonderful clarification of the position of Christian theology and the Biblical witness on happiness, but it is not merely that. It also functions as a defense of Christianity because it shows that Christianity is actually good for you. Finally, the book is a great book for devotional reading or for pastors to read in order to help Christians in their pursuit of Christ and of earthly and eternal happiness. I highly recommend it.

Jesus Christ and Mythology by Rudolf Bultmann: A Review

Rudolf Bultmann, Jesus Christ and Mythology New York, NY: Scribners, 1958

Introduction

Bultmann really needs no introduction. If you do not know much about him there are numerous articles available online. The main purpose here is simply to review this particular book which is a collection of Lectures he gave at Yale and Vanderbilt in 1951. The topic of the book is Bultmann’s radical method of New Testament interpretation: de-mythologizing. I’ve never heard anybody explain what Bultmann meant by this term on Bultmann’s terms. According to this little volume, de-mythologizing is the interpretation of the Bible’s mythological statements (statements which presuppose an ancient and, to the modern man, unbelievable worldview) in a way that makes them immediately relevant to the contemporary person. An example would be, “The understanding of God as creator is genuine only when I understand myself here and now as the creature of God. This existential understanding does not need to express itself in my consciousness as explicit knowledge. In any case the belief in the almighty God is not the conviction given in advance that there exists an almighty Being who is able to do all things. Belief in the almighty God is genuine only when it takes place in my very existence, as I surrender myself to the power of God who overwhelms me here and now” (Bultmann, 63). The rhetorical and theological purpose for Bultmann utilizing this interpretive method is that, “We can believe in God only in spite of experience, just as we can accept justification only in spite of conscience…de-mythologizing is the radical application of the doctrine of justification by faith to the sphere of knowledge and thought” (84). In other words, he feels that we cannot expect people to accept the statements of the Bible as true, conceptually, for that would be works, not faith.

The Good

The book helps you to understand exactly what everybody in your conservative seminary classes is talking about with regard to Bultmann’s methods. The book seems to falsify certain prejudices against Bultmann’s work that are often held by people who have not read it. In this respect it could be useful. As an aside, people I know who were actually connected to the man found him to have a warm piety and one friend noted that he really wanted to visit a church in America and witness an evangelistic service. But apart from that aspect of reading the man himself, the book had pleasant moments:

  1. Bultmann insisted that we see God’s Word as consistently demanding response. If the Bible reader is only focused upon finding the historical meaning, then there is no possibility for response. As Bultmann notes, “It is beyond the competence of critical study that I should hear the word of the Bible as a word addressed personally to me and that I should believe in it. This personal understanding…is imparted by the Holy Spirit, who is not at my disposal” (54). I don’t find myself entirely in agreement with this because historically speaking people who have studied the Scripture critically have precisely come to repentance about various issues. Now, of course the Holy Spirit makes that possible and of course that repentance is not the results of the critical study for reportage in journals and text books, but that close study makes the meaning which God inspired in the Scripture available to the student and through preaching, discussion, and writing available to the church in the form of knowledge about the text. Bultmann, though making a good point about a necessary distinction has over-corrected. Nevertheless, the Scripture, if one is claiming to be a Christian, must be seen as demanding a response of faith.

  2. The importance of presuppositions to exegesis is repeated often, especially on pages 47-50. But the point is that the questions we ask and the worldview we hold will often tend to influence the answers we get. This is also true if we expect the text to teach this or that dogma, such a presupposition ends up using the conclusion as a first premise.

  3. Bultmann, though never defining the cognitive or moral content of faith, nevertheless gives a good description of its character, “Faith is the abandonment of man’s own security and the readiness to find security only in the unseen beyond, in God” (40). This notion of faith, though it does not take into account the aspect of loyalty, does capture the nature of trust or entrusting oneself to another that is so crucial to the New Testament usage in most places, especially the gospels, Romans, and Galatians.

  4. Bultmann sides against Barth’s notion that there is no natural knowledge of God, “Man does have in advance a relation to God which has found its classical expression in the words of Augustine, “Thou hast made us for Thyself and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in Thee” (52).

  5. Bultmann cares about whether or not the non-philosopher or non-historian who is thoroughly enmeshed in a modern worldview and finds miracles unbelievable can still believe the gospel. I think he’s wrong-headed in his solution, but he clearly cares about people having an experience of justifying faith in Christ (35-44). The problem with his approach is that it might be difficult for a believer who struggles to think miracles are possible to do things like pray.

  6. Finally, Bultmann has a mystic’s eye for practicing God’s presence in the otherwise closed causal system of the modern world. His interpretation of Scripture, in this respect, is very similar to the allegorical method of old. Scripture is not just a series of dusty fables, no matter how dated certain passages seem, but it is the book through which God speaks to the church. Thus, the word heaven becomes a way of seeing God as transcendent of our world and circumstances (20). Any passage of Scripture is a call to love others in daily experience (43-44). God’s action is something that can be trusted even when we are in circumstances that clearly seem to betray our belief in God (64). It’s good stuff.

  7. Bultmann does note that he believes that the preaching of the church is true and rooted in an historical (and true) event. This event: Jesus Christ. Which for Bultmann is a summary for the life, death, resurrection, ascension, and present reign of Christ (80).

  8. It’s also very short. I read it this afternoon.

The Bad

  1. Bultmann bases a great deal of his book on a now dated conception of Jesus’ eschatology (11-19) [Dated doesn’t mean wrong, though I do disagree with his point of view, but those looking for something academically advanced won’t find it].

  2. He leaves, largely, the content of Christian obedience (enemy love, fidelity to other Christians, care for the poor, etc) and the Christian gospel (resurrection, atonement, etc) out of his explanations. That may be because the audience would know those things, but it would be easy to mistake Bultmann’s theory of faith with existentialist “openness to existence” without concrete referents in Christianity.

  3. Bultmann is similarly open to charge number two because he wants to say that God’s actions in history cannot be historically known because they cannot be proven to be done by God. But they can be reasonably believed to have happened and thus reasonably believed to be done by God, if one thinks God to be real. The point being that he opened himself to the criticism that he taught that Jesus’ resurrection doesn’t matter because he makes it seem so unknowable. But he doesn’t leave it entirely unknowable. He essentially says, “Try it out” about the truth of the gospel. Which is pretty cool, I guess.

  4. The book is couched in existentialist language that would be mostly lost on readers today.

  5. Bultmann’s perspective is so truncated in these brief lectures that it is too easy to misunderstand.

  6. The average American is more of a supernaturalist than anybody in Germany would have been in Bultmann’s day, so the book is not entirely relevant to many preachers that I know.

Conclusion

The book would only really have value to pastors and teachers who read quickly or to scholars whose job is to study not only the New Testament but the history of its interpretation. A clever seminary professor could apply its best ideas in course lectures with footnotes to give Bultmann his due without requiring this particular book as a text.

Simplify: a review

Back in 2008, I saw a review for Simplify by Paul Borthwick over at Internet Monk, back before Mike Spencer died. I bought the book immediately. I found that despite its price tag ($16.99), it contained a wealth of valuable information. It’s exactly what it says it will be. A book about the practical side of simplifying your life, especially with respect to finances and time. I read it as soon as I purchased it and starting applying its principles. My wife then read it (I lent it to her before we were even dating). And it has helped us to live rather simply. It’s principles are worth revisiting periodically. I was reorganizing my library (it must be done often because I always pull volumes off the shelf and lazily put them wherever I can reach), and saw it and reread it.

 

Simplify: 106 Ways to Uncomplicate Your Life

The downside to the book is that everything in it is available free in thousands of online articles or sites like Wiki-How. But the upside is that all the useful information is available in one volume in a format which could easily be used for family reading time, church study groups, or accountability/holiness meetings with other Christians.

One of the funniest things about the book is that the author suggests it may not be useful on the back. As a sincere question, it’s a helpful reflection. As a sales pitch, it’s genius.

Anyway, the book offers helpful advice for saving money, uncomplicating your life, and managing your time. I highly recommend that you read it with your spouse, read it before you get married, or read it as a sort of guide to subtle but helpful pathways out of bad habits.

4/5, highly recommend unless you’re willing to look this stuff up online.

Book Review: Stuart Ritchie’s Intelligence: All that matters

Stuart Ritchie, Intelligence: All That Matters. (Hodder & Stoughton, Kindle Edition 2016).

As an educator and leader, I try to stay up to date on research into personality and human potential. But sometimes I cannot keep up with recent findings. Stuart Ritchie’s new book helped fill the gaps.

Dr. Ritchie is a post-doc researcher at the University of Edinburgh where he is researching the development/decline of intelligence across the life span.

The point of the book is essentially to clarify the facts of the case with reference to intelligence:

“The research shows that intelligence test scores are meaningful and useful; that they relate to education, occupation and even health; that they are genetically influenced; and that they are linked to aspects of the brain. (44-45)”

Through the book Ritchie deftly explains the research with reference to each of these issues. For me to go through how he shows this would make the book superfluous. But some of the most interesting points are:

  1. The differences between male and female intelligence are not in terms of the average, but in terms of the outliers. The mean IQ of men and women is roughly 100. But men skew more toward very low IQs and very high IQs. More men are significantly below average and more men are significantly above average (1226).
  2. While eugenicists were interested in early IQ research, the earliest intelligence scientists were interested in helping the less intelligent to succeed. Not only so, but just like the Nazi discovery of a connection between smoking and cancer, the findings of the early eugenicist IQ researchers have been supported by later research (1192).
  3. Multiple intelligences theory isn’t backed by current scientific research (355).
  4. “Nevertheless, we’re lucky that the tools for raising intelligence – which might partly have caused the Flynn Effect – seem to be staring us in the face, in the form of education.” (1168-70)

The take away of the book is basically this: Intelligence, which can be measured by IQ, matters. The books that claim that hard work is more important than IQ are likely mistaken. Also, education appears to actually increase people’s IQ. This part is really important and while Ritchie never mentions him, it coinheres nicely with Arthur Whimbey’s research on training people in sequential problem solving and slowly improving their processing speed.

If you’re an educator, psychologist, parent, or political science major, I recommend that you read this book.

Scott Adams and the Six Filters For Truth

In Scott AdamsHow to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big he explains a helpful hierarchy of reliable knowledge, or as he calls them “The Six Filters for Truth.”[1]

The Six Filters for Truth

  1. Personal experience (Human perceptions are iffy.)
  2. Experience of people you know (Even more unreliable.)
  3. Experts (They work for money, not truth.)
  4. Scientific studies (Correlation is not causation.)
  5. Common sense (A good way to be mistaken with complete confidence.)
  6. Pattern recognition (Patterns, coincidence, and personal bias look alike.)

As far as practical schemas go, it is pretty darn good.

It is, at its core, a shorter version of the common topics.

Its brevity is what makes the filter is useful.

The items in parenthesis are Adams’ counter points to the usefulness of each layer in the filter.

Observe Adams’ skepticism regarding the ability of any of these items to give you an absolute insight into reality.

I only partially agree with him. I think that our cognitive faculties are limited, but that we can know truths.

I think the missing piece here is logic. Adams says in his live streams and other books that as far as persuasion is concerned, logic and reason are practically worthless.

But we know that logic, properly applied can yield truth. We know this from Geometry, mathematics generally, the invention of technologies, and advancements in medical treatment with observable results. The formulation of testable hypotheses as inferences from what is known is mankind’s most powerful faculty other than planning for the future.

But regardless of his skepticism of reason, a reasoned application of these filters might help you avoid being fooled in life. Try them out. Let me know how it goes.

References

[1] Adams, Scott (2013-10-22). How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life (p. 4). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

 

Book Review: Mere Churchianity

Michael Spencer, Mere Churchianity: Finding Your Way back to Jesus-Shaped Spirituality (Colorado Springs, Colo.: WaterBrook Press, 2010).

Several years ago, maybe when I was in high school, I came across the blog of Michael Spencer, the Internet Monk. One of Michael’s dreams was to help evangelical Christians find an identity that was simultaneously charitable, Biblical, and centered around the traditional practices of protestant piety in a way that put the spiritual focus of individual evangelicals on Jesus himself.

In hindsight, he was a very helpful guide despite not being an extremely good author. Something about his apparent character and earnestness attracted me to his writings. His last year or so of life was pretty rough because he ended up with brain cancer which lead to his death just before the release of his only book. I read the book as soon as it came out and meant to review it and just never got around to it.

Before I move on to specifics in the book, I’ll say that I think it would be helpful for group discussions more than for individual consumption. It’s one of those books that, while insightful, I think requires a group of people to discuss their personal “aha” moments that match the author’s own experience and the experiences of those present. Reading it on your own, if the book doesn’t match what you’ve seen or felt may only be helpful in brief snippets. Onto my typical review strategy:

The Good

The book has some good sections and good lines. The chapter, What Does Jesus-Shaped Spirituality mean brings up some good questions about people who are looking for spirituality over organized religion. For instance, he says, “I am convinced that people who say they are seeking spirituality and not the Christian religion are on the right path. (85)” Based on what most people mean by those two things, he’s probably right. But whether you think he is or isn’t, the point raises good questions about evangelism, faith, and what kind of life churches claim to offer people in the gospel they present. That same chapter ends with this, “I’m looking for a spiritual experience that looks like, feels like, sounds like, lives like, loves like, and acts like Jesus of Nazareth. It’s that simple. (85)” The wonderful thing about this point is that, hopefully, as we grow in understanding of Scripture and through the trial and error experience of following Christ with Christ’s people, we will come to understand Jesus anew and more fully. In other words, a spiritual experience oriented around Jesus simultaneously gives our spirituality an objective orientation (Jesus, crucified, raised, as he is presented in Scripture) and meets us where we’re at (our understanding of Jesus).

Another good aspect is the concept of churchianity. What Michael means by this is the multilayered conformity of Christianity to whatever the churches in the United States happen to be saying/doing at the time without reference Jesus himself. So churchianity includes obsession with certain traditions despite the contradiction between them and Christ, the disordered patriotism of certain factions of the political right, the focus on self-helpy positive thinking rather than Scripture, the mall-like megachurch movements that revolve around consumerism rather than the four gospels, and so-on.

The beginning of the book starts with Spencer’s recollection of his time as a youth pastor making messes at Dairy Queen with his students. I used to get frustrated as a youth group member at the incredible messes that would be made when I went places with the youth group. It was hard for me to imagine an adult allowing that to happen, but Mike explained how the experience of getting a sad note from an employee really affected him (1-7).

The Bad

Michael’s understanding of sanctification is mistaken (142-144). He claims that “the gradual process of becoming…experientially righteous in daily life” is not “true to the message of the gospel… (142.)” But the fact of the matter is that Jesus himself says that people will not only hear his teachings but “put them into practice” (Matthew 7:13-28).  I get what Mike was trying to say, and we should always and ever be skeptical of our alleged spiritual growth, but we also shouldn’t doubt what the Lord is capable of doing in us. I think the most important thing to remember is that the book’s earlier definition of Jesus shaped spirituality entails that those who are spiritual in such a way will come to be more and more the kind of person Jesus envisions his followers to be.

Now, one of the bad things about the concept of churchianity is that it may inadvertently minimize the centrality of church-life to the gospel. Church life includes moral accountability, wise council, public reading of Scripture, prayer, material assistance, spiritual examples, traditions that survived because those who followed them grew in their knowledge of Christ because of them, and so-on. If the gospel is the message of the kingdom of God and the kingdom of God is the reconstitution of God’s people around Jesus, then the gospel is the message about Jesus and his church. It can’t be less than that. So, in one sense churchianity is a good thing.

Sometimes the book feels a bit rant-like. Rants can be good, but looking back on it, it’s neither as fun nor winsome as Mere Christianity nor as argumentatively sound.

Conclusion

Over all, I think the book could be helpful for Christians in a small group context if they’re looking for some answers to the “I feel like something is missing, what is it?” question. Otherwise, there are books that more effectively diagnose the problems of American Protestantism like The Divine Conspiracy by Dallas Willard.

 

Abraham and Happiness

Gen 12:1-3  Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.  (2)  And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.  (3)  I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

Gen 24:1  Now Abraham was old, well advanced in years. And the LORD had blessed Abraham in all things.

 

“Why does Abraham leave Mesopotamia? God’s words in this passage give us some insight into what is at stake. To be sure, God offers Abraham some things that any man might want, whether he is good or evil – to attain fame in history, to be the father of a great nation. But in addition to these, God speaks to Abraham about two moral dimensions that are to attend this project of exchanging the great metropolis for life in a shepherd’s tent in Canaan: Abraham is told that he will be blessed; and he is told that he will be a blessing to all the families of the earth. And in fact, the biblical History is insistent upon both of these dimensions, returning repeatedly to the suggestion that in the subsequent history of Abraham’s children “all the nations of the earth will be blessed”; and telling us explicitly, at the end of Abraham’s life, that “the Lord had blessed Abraham in all things.”[1]

 

The Biblical idea of blessedness (happiness) is not altruism or a lack of interest in oneself. Nor is it a prosperity gospel way of thinking which says that as long as I am prospering I should be happy. But it is, as shown in Abraham’s life in Genesis, seeking and bestowing happiness. Or like Abel, “making good of it (Genesis 4:7)” for yourself, but also for others.

[1] Yoram Hazony, The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture: An Introduction (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 111.

 

Put Yourself First?

In Scott Adams great little book, How to Fail At Almost Everything And Still Win Big, he says that putting yourself first is crucial for being able to help other people:

“In hard times, or even presuccess times, society and at least one cartoonist want you to take care of yourself first. If you pursue your selfish objectives, and you do it well, someday your focus will turn outward. It’s an extraordinary feeling. I hope you can experience it.” Adams, Scott (2013-10-22). How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life (p. 50). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

For many Christians, this kind of talk sounds verboten. At first glance it appears to contradict several data points in Scripture:

  1. God’s testimonies are opposed to selfishness. (Psalm 119:36)
  2. Love your neighbor as yourself (Levitivus 19:18).
  3. Put the interests of others above your own (Philippians 2:3-4)
  4. Love the Lord your God with your whole heart, mind, soul, and strength. (Deuteronomy 6:4 and Mark 12:30).
  5. Selfishness leads to disorder. (James 3:16)

Now, the kind of selfishness the Bible is against appears to be a sort of self-interest that opposes humility before God, the pursuit of the common good, or the acknowledgment of the importance of others and their needs. In other words, it is living a purely self-directed life. For instance, John Gill’s comments on Philippians 2:4 are:

Not but that a man should take care of his worldly affairs, and look well unto them, and provide things honest in the sight of all men, for himself and his family, otherwise he would be worse than an infidel; but he is not to seek his own private advantage, and prefer it to a public good; accordingly the Syriac version reads it, “neither let anyone be careful of himself, but also everyone of his neighbour”; and the Arabic version thus, “and let none of you look to that which conduces to himself alone, but let everyone of you look to those things which may conduce to his friend”; but this respects spiritual things, and spiritual gifts: a Christian should not seek his own honour and applause, and to have his own will, and a point in a church carried his own way, but should consult the honour of Christ, the good of others, and the peace of the church; he should not look upon his own gifts, he may look upon them, and ascribe them to the grace of God, and make use of them to his glory, but not to admire them, or himself for them, and pride himself in them, and lift up himself above others, neglecting and taking no notice of the superior abilities of others

But, if we were to read Scott’s word “selfish” to mean “self-interested,” then I think the playing field changes. The Bible teaches self-interest and indeed condemns selfishness in the name of self-interest:

  1. Getting wisdom is only guaranteed to benefit yourself in the end. (Proverbs 9:12)
  2. Getting wisdom is showing love to your soul. You’re commanded to be wise, so you’re commanded to love your soul. (Proverbs 19:8)
  3. Proverbs challenges us to be good at our jobs. (Proverbs 22:29)
  4. Jesus appeals to our sense of self preservation to tell us not to be financially selfish or obsessed with riches. (Matthew 16:26)

So, is there a sense in which Christians should care for their own needs and desires first? I think that the answer is yes. For instance, if somebody evangelizes all the time without first repenting and believing the gospel, they may find themselves in the position of those Jesus never knew in the first place in Matthew 7. Similarly, one who has no savings account can have no money for mercy. One who knows not, in depth, the Bible, cannot live to benefit others in a way befitting to the words therein, and so-on.

On the other hand, is selfishness, as I defined it above, evil? Yes.

How to read: Ask is it true?

[I originally wrote this in 2015. It seems especially relevant now.]

In the Screwtape Letters, the delightfully evil demon said this to his student:

Only the learned read old books and we have now so dealt with the learned that they are of all men the least likely to acquire wisdom by doing so. We have done this by inculcating the Historical Point of View. The Historical Point of View, put briefly, means that when a learned man is presented with any statement in an ancient author, the one question he never asks is whether it is true. He asks who influenced the ancient writer, and how far the statement is consistent with what he said in other books, and what phase in the writer’s development, or in the general history of thought, it illustrates, and how it affected later writers, and how often it has been misunderstood (specially by the learned man’s own colleagues) and what the general course of criticism on it has been for the last ten years, and what is the “present state of the question.” To regard the ancient writer as a possible source of knowledge—to anticipate that what he said could possibly modify your thoughts or your behaviour—this would be rejected as unutterably simple-minded. And since we cannot deceive the whole human race all the time, it is most important thus to cut every generation off from all others; for where learning makes a free commerce between the ages there is always the danger that the characteristic errors of one may be corrected by the characteristic truths of another. – C.S. Lewis The Screwtape Letters Letter XXVII

For those who haven’t read The Screwtape Letters, it’s a book of speculative fiction by C.S. Lewis wherein he writes from the perspective of a demon attempting to help a lesser demon tempt a human being who begins to consider Christianity.

I think that Lewis’ point above is very important. In a significant portion of scholarship (as well as in internet bickering) the source, background, or reaction others might have to a claim are what people consider. The missing piece is, “Is it true?” After we ask the truth question, we can ask, “So what?” I’d rather read a book by a brilliant New Testament scholar like Maurice Casey who actually asks, “Is it true?” and said, “No.” It gets tiresome reading work that says, “Clearly Paul got this idea from stoicism,” “Jesus was an apocalyptic preacher” or “Aquinas just said things Aristotle said,” without exploring whether the ideas are true and what it means for the reader if they are true.

The idea that one has found the origin of an idea and can therefore reject it is actually a textbook example of the genetic fallacy (the notion that an idea is discredited for its source rather than evidence to the contrary). Now, obviously in a Bible commentary part of the task is explaining parallels, allusions, background, and so-on. But even then, the truth question must be asked in one, if not, two ways:

  1. Is this interpretation true?
  2. Once the text is interpreted, is the text true and if so, how?

Examples of finding the source/influence behind an idea or the hypothetical results of expressing it are rampant on the internet.

There is a good reason for this: making an idea seem unpleasant to believe is easier to do than making an idea seem untrue. For instance, if I explain where an idea comes from, then I can make it seem juvenile to think it (That idea is from the Bronze Age!). Or, if I can say that “so-and-so bad person thinks that idea,” then the idea is shameful. Th

e problem is that many people won’t actually consider ideas on the level of logic and facts because it is rare that people think about the difference between logic and rhetoric. Anyway, I challenge you to ask the truth question when you read.