Saturday, December 22

Can you argue convincingly that the Trump presidency is not a disaster?

Can you argue convincingly that the Trump presidency is not a disaster? What presuppositions do you have to make to do that?

(All civil comments accepted. I will tell you in advance that I'm not going to be very convinced by 'he's better than HRC would have been', but I'm willing to listen to specifics.)

This post began with this article from [] which includes Trump's top 10 lies of the year. The President regularly lies on the public, global record.

That article also includes reference to two of Trump's extramarital affairs. His comments about sexual assault and the women who have accused him of it should also be considered here.

The Republican Party once claimed to be the party of family values and morality. Is there not even any pretense to that any more? Is it so much more important to back a 'winner'? If Obama had done these things, the Republicans would have gone berserk.

I believe many conservative Christians voted against HRC when they voted for Trump, and especially on the moral issue of abortion. Is your argument here that, even though he's a morally bankrupt narcissist, we have to compromise on that because of the 'wider effect' of abortion policy?

While all of my friends are moral, some may argue for a Kissinger-esque realpolitik. Apart from Trump's moral bankruptcy, here's a non-exhaustive list of recent non-moral issues:

  • Government shutdown in part over paying for a wall between us and Mexico (though I'm open to immigration reform)
  • The market crash, including trade policy
  • Foreign policy most characterized by making friends with dictatorships like Russia, China, North Korea, Syria and Turkey
    • Continuing to pursue friendship with Putin in the face of our own intelligence community which is unanimous that Russia messed with our election
  • SECDEF Mattis's resignation, the last appointee in the Trump administration with any bi-partisan support that I can think of (open to being reminded)
  • Indifference to the rule of law as exemplified by past SECSTATE Tillerson's recent quote: 'So often, the president would say, ‘Here’s what I want to do, and here’s how I want to do it, and I would have to say to him, ‘Mr. President, I understand what you want to do, but you can’t do it that way. It violates the law.’'

What do you think (with special interest in civil comments from conservatives)?

Monday, December 17

'C.S. Lewis: A Life' by Alister McGrath -- Short Review and Longer Reflections

This is a good book that is worth reading if you're interested in Lewis. McGrath is a researcher. He read all of the primary sources to write this book, including some (like letters) that had not been available previously. Therefore, he has complete command of the available facts. He even produces a new timeline of Lewis's conversion that is convincing. (The most interesting part is that, if McGrath is right, Lewis misreported an important date.) All of this factuality is strong. It means that McGrath has paragraphs or sections that sometimes plod a little, but these passages are rare and short and easily overlooked.

A few of my reflections:

The first thing that jumped out at me, as addressed by McGrath, is Lewis's motivation by and usage of imagination. He often presents as being supremely rational. That is the first thing that some people would mention about him, considering landmarks like The Problem of Pain or Mere Christianity.

However, even more than being very rational, Lewis was driven by imagination and prodigiously engages the imagination of his readers. McGrath does a good job of describing how Lewis himself was motivated by imagination as a path to understanding and inspired the same thing for his readers. Before he could ever have been regarded as a paragon of reason, Lewis understood and, indeed, lived in the world through imagination. Before he became an academic, he wanted to be a poet. Imagination is the path to reason that he primarily offers to his readers. In fact, he often goes above or beyond reason to address things that it cannot.

This brings up an interesting observation. Lewis burst onto the popular scene as a seeming apologist. But, as Austin Farrer says (p222), what he was really giving to BBC listeners during World War 2 was a vision of Christianity that they could consider and that obviously attracted many. He was subject to criticism from philosophers and theologians that his arguments were not thoroughgoing enough or were too shallow. This was true, in a way, because he was never well placed (or trained) for serious philosophical apologetics. Nor did he intend to engage at that level. He was a popular apologist who cast a vision. He found apologetics exhausting and never really accepted or met its philosophical standards. Before long, he gave it up.

Lewis had some very strange relationships with women, to put it mildly. his relationships with Mrs Moore and Joy Davidman seem odd given his public persona and they should be included in any overall assessment of Lewis's life (which McGrath does).

As someone who was first a fan of JRR Tolkien, the dissolution of their friendship is sad to me. My most recent other source on their lives was 'The Fellowship: the Literary Lives of the Inklings'. My reading of that book lowered my opinion of Tolkien and raised my opinion of Lewis, However, reading McGrath's book 'corrects' those estimations a little. Tolkien drew back from Lewis when Lewis's friendship with Charles Williams grew, to some degree because of self-doubt. But Tolkien worked with perseverance to get Lewis his position at Cambridge, breaking through Lewis's own misunderstanding. In the same way, Lewis nominated Tolkien when they were fairly estranged for the Nobel Prize.

Perhaps because of this distance, and also because of the extreme irregularity of the relationship, Lewis included almost none of his friends in his relationship with Joy Davidman. But, as Lewis himself often argued in general, we should reserve some of our judgment regarding people from a bygone era. Lewis's friends, including Tolkien, had a different view of divorce and remarriage than we do. It's easy to look back and condemn them in this regard, but we should hold back, at least a little. By any measure, the relationship was always strange, certainly not the fraughtless romance of the 1993 movie 'Shadowlands'. Apart from the breaking of multiple conventions, Lewis's friends, including Tolkien, were undoubtedly concerned that Davidman might be using him. His brother, Warnie, certainly regarded the situation that way.

McGrath, an Evangelical himself, does a good job of addressing how Evangelical's have considered Lewis, up to this day when he can, in a sense, be regarded as their (our) 'patron saint'. For my part, I want to draw two brief connections. One weak part of Lewis's Mere Christianity is the individualness of it (i.e. it mostly leaves out the critically communal part of the faith). I suspect this has appealed to Evangelicals as it is a weakness they (we) have also been prone to.

Also consider The Problem of Pain, Lewis's first popular work. Although it is intellectually sound as far as it goes, The Problem of Pain is fairly shallow in basically not treating the emotional complexities of faith and suffering. It should be compared with A Grief Observed to think through the changes in Lewis's life and how a merely intellectual treatment of pain is inadequate. I think The Problem of Pain comes from a time in Lewis's life when he had locked out his own significant earlier suffering including the loss of his mother at a young age, his father's terrible inadequacy afterwards, and the horrors of the trenches of World War 1.

One final example of brokenness in Lewis's life was his anxiety about money. He often struggled with it and, even when he was comparatively wealthy, he was so worried about being able to afford retroactive taxes (which had been charged to him before), that he was incapable of being generous. Although Lewis's writing inspires us to hope for substantial healing in this life for ourselves, his own life is a little disappointing in this regard. I feel sorry about his own experience and wish he had experienced more growth as an encouragement to my own hope.

Monday, January 29

Review of 'Life without Lack'

What made Dallas Willard different? Why do we get the sense when we read what he wrote, listen to what he taught and most of all watch video of him, that he made progress in Christianity?

He did the work. He did the things he wrote and taught about, the things he recommended to us.

I'm glad to be part of the launch team for Dallas's new book (published posthumously), 'Life without Lack'. This book comes from teaching Dallas did in a church on Psalm 23 many years ago. His friend Larry Burtoft recorded the sessions and has edited them into this book along with Dallas's daughter, Becky Willard Heatley. I got to read an advance copy.

I was a little bit worried that this book would not 'sound' like Dallas's writing and speaking. But, happily, it does. It comes from his spoken teaching and it reads that way.

Listening to Dallas (and also reading his writing), I hear someone who practiced what he preached and grew in grace. He comes across as wise and humble. He is not afraid to sometimes suggest that he has done these things. He doesn't rush to disabuse us of the notion that he has been able to make progress. (And this is a form of humility.)

(I have developed a pretty comprehensive list of his talks that can be listened to here: The Wisdom of Dallas Willard.)

For example, on p82, Dallas writes 'To listen to his Word and nourish our whole beings with it is not a nice thing we might do occasionally. Our very lives depend upon it.' My sense is that Dallas lived this out. He teaches a lot about the importance of memorizing Scripture (including in this book) and he even shares (in some of his talks) his experience with it.

He talks some about of his own practice of spiritual disciplines, including disciplines he made up himself. Dallas teaches us to persevere when our attempts don't succeed. He teaches us to experiment. He obviously did these things himself.

This is a book that is meant to be applied. All of Dallas's books are, in a sense, but this one is especially. The material was first taught to a church group, so the emphasis is not on deep theological teaching for a more general audience. In contrast,  'The Divine Conspiracy', which also is very applicable, but can be hard for people without philosophical and theological background to get through.

Dallas teaches that grace is the gift of God and that it is worth all of our best effort. Some of us are so afraid of presuming on God's grace that we actually stay away from effort and teach others to do so!

Dallas has the best practical Christian psychology of anyone I know (rooted in profound philosophical knowledge). He intends for his teachings and suggestions to be realistic and not just a nice theory that may be completely impractical. Contrast this with the ultra-orthodox theological watchdogs who criticize him but whose teachings, for all intents and purposes, do not produce Christ-like change in people (and possibly only make them more Pharisaical).

It's encouraging to read his suggestions and know that he has tried them himself and found them helpful. We see and hear the evidence in his life.

All of this culminates in a very practical chapter about how to spend a day with Jesus, beginning with one day and laying the foundation for many in the spirit of Brother Lawrence and Frank Laubach.

Maybe most of all, Dallas had the vision that we could be God's children and obey Him and be transformed by Him and live in His love. The vision helped him to continue in his determination to grow.

I expected this book to be more of an exposition of Psalm 23, but it is not. Rather, Dallas draws conclusions from Psalm 23 and then writes about how to experience them, including what the prerequisites are. In this way, 'Life without Lack' is somewhat systematic. You could think of it as a prequel to 'The Divine Conspiracy'.

Don't read this book casually. Don't read it like a typical book. Don't read it with no plans to change your life.

Read it with the expectation that God wants to challenge you and encourage you, through the writing of Dallas Willard, to experience more of the full life He wants you to have, as demonstrated in the great Shepherd Psalm.