Those who spend much time on Facebook or watching TV news shows are surely aware of the hostility that continues nearly unabated in our often uncivil public debates. The Supreme Court decision about RFRA, Hobby Lobby and the Hahn family's Mennonite wood business has generated so much nasty comment and ridiculous accusations that I found myself in painful, draining, conversations with folks less about the substance of the decisions but about the tone and style of our public discourse. I know that I've failed to be gracious in public debates and in my own writing at times, but am amazed at how mean-spirited some people are.
My friends on the left might be surprised when I say that some of their spokespeople tend to be as bad in the vitriol department as the notorious loud-mouths at Fox News. Conservatives who have made a cottage industry documenting the ugliness of the left seem to be tone-deaf to how negative and aggressive they themselves sound.
While thoughtful voices and serious arguments worth considering are found in respectable journals that represent various stops on the political spectrum, too many people on Facebook or call-in shows just vent their spleens with inane bloviating. This grieves me. I was reminded again this week how I resonated when I heard one blogger a few years ago saying he was going to be a "conscientious objector in the culture wars."
But yet, I'm not sure that is responsible, and hardly even possible unless one is completely disengaged.
Which reminds me of the last BookNotes post I did, highlighting the DVD series called For the Life of the World: Letters to the Exiles. Promoting the artful, big picture overview of patient, missional, "in but not of the world," whole-life discipleship and cultural engagement so graciously presented in that DVD is one good way to counter this ugly tendency.
FLOW (as some at the Acton Institute abbreviate For the Life of the World) offers a delightfully rich and thick view of culture and God's call to steward the various economies and spheres of life, in wonder and joy, with great concern for justice and order, but it refuses to traffic in alarmism or negativity. It is engaged, but nonpartisan. No one who watches even a few of those seven short film experiments will think we who follow Christ are called to anything other than a robust life in and for the world, including living into God's call to justice. Yet, I am hopeful that those who embrace this sort of perspective will be motivated to find alternatives to culture wars and winner-take-all, scorched-Earth political strategies. If, as FLOW suggests, we are inspired by the wonder and grace and goodness of the creation and the holiness of the good God who is disclosed in the story of redemption of the cosmos, few will be content to resort to the sort of shallow and dehumanizing name-calling that I've seen, even from pastors and theologians, this very week.
So, in addition to what I said earlier in the week, here's another good reason to work through this wonderful FLOW DVD curriculum and the Field Guide: it presents a better way, an alternative to the really awful examples of ugly cultural engagement on offer too often, and a vision that is distinct from the Christian left or religious right, without at all opting for a tepid or overly pious disinterest in the things of Earth. Isn't that what you long for, what you wish your own faith community could take up?
Having said all that -- my anguish this week about the mean-ness and incivility in our debating, and my hope that the vision offered by For the Life of the World can form among us a different posture and social alternative -- allow me to offer just a few more resources to help us think about our civility and our commitments to things like our first freedoms as US citizens. (For our international readers I might note that I'm posting this on our celebration of Independence Day, the 4th of July.)
Most of these books I have suggested before, and reviewed them more thoroughly in some cases. If you are as burdened as I am about the caustic tones and bad arguments so prevalent these days, I trust you will appreciate this list. As with anything else, there are skills and attitudes to be learned, habits and values that under-gird skills of good thinking and fair debate and respectful discourse. We need to deepen the craft of clarifying one's views, thinking through the implications of one's convictions, and nurture the virtue and character of being the kind of person that respects others and even is willing to learn from those with whom one disagrees. Call this, at least, open-mindedness and humility. Remember to be kind. Stand up for others. Love our enemies, including those you disapprove of. We can learn to "speak the truth in love" and to disagree without being disagreeable.
Here are ten resources that we think will help. Maybe those who need them most won't buy them, but you can, and you can share their insight and contribute to a conversation about public manners, at least, and forms of civic life that enhance dialogue, freedom, and, as Parker Palmer puts it, "a politics worthy of the human spirit."
Uncommon Decency: Christian Civility in an Uncivil World Richard Mouw (IVP) $16.00 I have often said that this is one of my all-time favorite books, and it is a splendid little resource, thoughtful, informative, deeply theological and yet delightfully accessible. It has profound meat on the bones, and will help you be formed in the virtues demanded by the call to Christ-like cultural engagement. There are good and important insights here, and a wise, balanced framework for thinking about disagreements - religious, political, philosophical. I like Rich Mouw's impulse (shown in most of his many good books) to ponder other views by saying "on the other hand..." But there is also the chapter called "When There Is No Other Hand." This is not a schoolmarm scolding us about bad manners, promoting milk-toast moderation, but offers a robust public theology worked out with thoughtful etiquette and respect. This is so good!
Saving Civility: 52 Ways to Tame Rude, Crude & Attitude for a Polite Planet Sara Hacala (Skylight Paths) $16.99 Tasteless and tactless behavior is on the rise, so I thought I would list a book that is not rooted intentionally in a Christian perspective but is written by a consultant and speaker who works in business, schools, among non-profits and others who works in this field of resisting incivility. She goes beyond a superficial discussion of proper manners to new protocols and practices. As it says on the back cover, Hacala "taps the wisdom of ancient spiritual luminaries as well as the latest social science research" as she "presents civility as a mind-set that encompasses values and attitudes that help us embrace connections to others and help repair society." Fifty-two practical ways are suggested showing how to reverse the course of our current cultural tone.
I Beg to Differ: Navigating Difficult Conversations with Truth and Love Tim Muehlhoff (IVP) $15.00 This splendid book gets as practical as can be in what I think is an extraordinarily useful resource. Most of us, I think, believe ourselves to be agreeable and pleasant. Yet, as the internet has reminded me this week, there are just terrible knee-jerk instincts that kick in during times of controversy and even leaders who should know better seem ill-prepared to handle conflict very well. I am pretty conflict averse and realize that I've got much to learn. How about you? I've read several books on arguing well, on civil disagreements, and on conflict management, and this is one of the best. It is informed by good psychology, solid theology, a fine attitude and good writing skills. Muehlhoff is a communications expert and brings good insights from Scripture and communication theory. I think every church should have this available in the church library or resource room and every pastor or ministry leader should have one to loan out, since we all face conflict and need help learning how to do conflict well.
Peace Catalysts: Resolving Conflict in Our Families, Organizations and Communities Rick Love (IVP) $15.00 I have mentioned Rick Love before, a courageous, Spirit-filled former missionary who, in his conversations and relationships with Muslims (including some very strict and even hostile ones) grew to not only love them, but to move increasingly to be interested in global peace-making, bridge-building, conflict-resolution and the like. This backstory has equipped him to learn remarkably well profound skills that we can now all learn about. This is a very good book on conflict and includes extraordinary stories of God's work as we attempt to be a peace with others. This is very impressive stuff. Thanks be to God for this peace-maker who has had global experiences and invites us all to this great adventure, following Christ into the world.
Healing the Heart of Democracy: The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit Parker J. Palmer (Jossey-Bass) $24.95 I recall doing a review of this when it first came out a few years ago, sharing how very glad I was that this deep Quaker leader was able to bring his experience in building community, circles of conversation and heart-felt sharing to bear on how we could find ways for local conversation, civil society, and good, respectful debate, face to face, in our local communities. We are in an era (have we ever not been?) of deep divisions and here he gives us tools to take "we the people" seriously. Palmer wrote a very early book called The Company of Strangers which was about civic life and the spirituality of our lives as citizens, so this is no new terrain for him. I like this quote by Congressman John Lewis who writes, "We have been trying to bridge the great divides in this great country for a long time. In this book, Parker Palmer urges us to 'keep on walking, keep on talking' -- just as we did in the civil rights movement -- until we cross those bridges together." This is a dignified, practical book, wise and helpful.
The Case for Civility: And Why Our Future Depends On It Os Guinness (HarperOne) $23.95 Few people in the culture wars - the secularized progressives or the sanctimonious right, those wanting a religiously-denuded "naked public square" or those wanting an enforced "sacred public square" -- are consistent with the genius of the First Amendment. Dr. Guinness is a respected sociologist, public thinker, and extraordinary communicator and here he brilliantly points us to a framework of "freedom for and freedom from" religion which is obviously rooted in the US Constitution and our Bill of Rights. He passionately invites us to consider how to work this out, and reminds us of the sorts of structures that enhance what he calls a "cosmopolitan public square." I think The Case for Civility is a hugely significant proposal about protecting public justice in our pluralistic society. Make it the next thing you read after Mouw's call to convicted civility.
A Free People's Suicide: Sustainable Freedom and the American Future Os Guinness (IVP) $16.00 Although it isn't exactly a sequel to the important Case for Civility, here, again, Dr. Guinness, a Brit, holds up the genius of the US Founding Fathers and their vision of the Bill of Rights with exceptional aplomb and his legendary eloquence. Here he expounds on the virtues and habits of heart needed to sustain the American experience. I cannot tell you how important this is, although Guinness cites many who sounded similar warnings (Jefferson, de Tocqueville, Kennedy.) This is a fabulous study of the ideas of the Founding Fathers and an urgent call for Americans to ponder the nature of our democracy and what kind of people we want to be. Even if one thinks that he doesn't comes down completely right on every page, this is none-the-less one of the most important books of this sort in recent times, exploring the nexus of religion, freedom, character and civility. If you are flying a little flag this Independence Day, reading this British celebration of the ideas behind - and the values and virtues needed to keep - our American freedoms will help you understand all that is at stake, and for what those original thirteen colonies were striving. Fascinating!
The Global Public Square: Religious Freedom and the Making of a World Safe for Diversity Os Guinness (IVP) $16.00 Folks are not only angry about the Supreme Court Decision about Hobby Lobby and the Mennonite business that sought an exemption from paying for what they consider to be profoundly dangerous abortion-causing birth control methods, many are debating the merits of the Presbyterian Church (USA) divestment from three corporations who do controversial projects in Israel, the debates about the Benghazi fiasco, the exchange of Gitmo prisoners for a US soldier who went AWOL in Afghanistan, the role of the US military around the world. In others words, the vitriol is not only about domestic issues, but about foreign policy, often related to terrorism driven by radical Islam. I don't need to dwell on the evils of ISIS or describe the horror of groups like Boko Haram and their enslavement of children in Nigeria or the persecution of the ancient Christian church in places like Syria to remind us of the significance of figuring out and promoting notions of religious freedom throughout the world. Good people can disagree about what US policy should be about all this, but there is a constellation of issues about religion in foreign affairs about which we must be aware.
I say all this just to once again highlight this book which I know Dr. Guinness feels very passionate. As well he should - he has traveled throughout the world, has seen great injustice first hand, and realizes that while big ideas and philosophical debate isn't the only answer to religiously-based injustices, a framework of affirming international religious freedom is a major part - and too often, and minimized part - of effective peace-building and international diplomacy. There are heavier and more scholarly works on the role of faith in global diplomacy, and there are lurid documentations of the martyrdom of Christians at the hands of brutal forces of repression. The Global Public Square is better than most: thoughtful, engaging, important, passionate, and strikes a great tone for ordinary readers. I cannot recommend it more highly. It is needed this very season, perhaps now more than ever and we would all be better global citizens if we spend some time with these pages.
Renaissance: The Power of the Gospel However Dark the Times Os Guinness (IVP) $16.00 While mentioning some older books of Os Guinness we are happy to announce his next book. We are taking PRE-ORDERS of this forthcoming book (due early August 2014) which is brief, passionate, thoughtful, and a book which invites morally-serious and thoughtful Christian engagement with the culture, refusing both shallow accommodation and postures of alarmist hostility. I have an advanced copy of this manuscript and I will read it over the 4th of July, reminding me of the hope of the gospel, how to keep "first things first" and ways to resist the cynicism of these times. While Guinness' two most recent books (listed above) are very much about the ideas of America and the need for religious liberty, pluralism and civility, this one backs up to offer a grand vision of how to be salt and light and leaven in the broken world of idols and ideologues. It is handsome and powerful, perhaps akin to his small classic such as Time for Truth or in some ways, even his essential The Call. I believe it will be seen as a major contribution, readable, lucid, inspiring, and refreshing reminding us to serve "an audience of One" and live out faith without fear, trusting God and God alone for the results of social change. Can there be a renaissance of goodness in our culture? Certainly, yes, if the church returns to clarity about the gospel.
Luminous: Living in the Presence and Power of Jesus T. David Beck (IVP) $16.00 I could list any number of great books about being shaped by the virtues of Christ - you saw our several recent reviews about new books by Dallas Willard, for instance, a master of promoting processes that help us experience the renovation of the heart. I wanted to highlight this book by Beck (that I reviewed at length here at BookNotes before) because although it is mostly a book about spiritual formation and how to be open to God's work in our lives, it reminds us of the power of the Holy Spirit, and the purposes of God to be about peace and reconciliation in the world. Oh. if other books about prayer, spiritual renewal, and the power of the Spirit were aligned with the call to peacemaking. (And, oh, if books about peace-making in the world were framed by the broader purposes of God in the world and the empowerment of the Holy Spirit.) Yes, in a post about civility, reconciliation, religious freedom, social justice, and gracious practices of public engagement, this kind of book is part of our tool-kit. To learn to make a difference in the world, especially in areas of disagreement and serious argument and momentous current events, we need grounded in the ways of Christ, the power and purpose of the Spirit, reminded that God is at work bringing healing and hope and reconciliation to the world.
By the way, our friends at Q Ideas gathered together a few of their own best video clips of talks they've hosted on this. What an excellent collection of (fairly short) timely pieces on the theme "How Can We Get Along When We Disagree?" All are great, including the smart one by Gideon Strauss on "principled pluralism" who commends Richard Mouw's book listed above. After ordering a few books from us (below) click here an enjoy these valuable Q videos.
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