Choosing the Good: Christian Ethics in a Complex World

I take the title of this month’s column from the great new book
by Messiah College Vice-Provost and College Pastor, Dennis P. Hollinger.
Dennis is a friend, well-known in a variety of thoughtful ministries (such
as the C.S. Lewis Institute, where he serves on the Board) and a thoroughly
reliable guide to one of the most complicated areas of ministry in our

Oh yeah–I know what you may be thinking. How hard is it to know
what is right and wrong? Only a worldly fool would start hedging the bets
and muddying the water, nuancing this and questioning that. Isn’t
truth black and white? Only an ivory tower academic has to write books
like this.

Well, hear me out. Rather, listen to Dennis Hollinger. He is a solid
man of God, fully committed to orthodox and historic Christian thinking.
Still, he is fully aware that various Christians (and non-Christians)
have seen things from various angles, with different nuances and insights.
There have been–and still are!–very different schools of thought,
different contexts, each which have persuasive cases. Even for those with
the most simple commitment to the authority of the Scriptures, different
biblical principles sometimes compete, making it hard to know what to
do in a given situation; such quandaries can drive a sensitive soul to
prayer and can sometimes push us to cynicism or paralysis. To complicate
things even more, in these (post)modern times, there are ethical issues
and moral decisions that simply are not mentioned in the Bible. No, things
are not always that easy nor clear. And there is little consensus, even
in the church. We need some help, and the sooner we pay some intentional
attention to this area, the better.

I am convinced that just relying on our good instincts or our desires
to be faithful in our discipleship will not bear the sort of fruits we
long for, and our integrity, our coherence, our contentment and our witness
before the watching world will be compromised. From the workplace to the
voting booth, from our shopping choices to our sexual ethics, from personal
questions of our use of time to public questions about modern warfare,
as a character in a Bruce Cockburn song sings, “Sometimes…it’s
hard…to live.” This book, Choosing the Good, newly
published by Baker Books, is the best book I have yet seen on this vexing
area. It will make thoughtful and intentional Christian living a little
less hard.

Although Choosing the Good isn’t what I would call a quick
or easy read, Hollinger is a clear and stimulating writer, always a teacher,
offering good illustrations, case studies and examples along the way.
Even when explaining fairly philosophical notions–how Alasdair MacIntyre
uses Aristotle, say, or why Stanley Hauerwas claims he doesn’t even
believe in ethics–the book is clear and understandable. More often
than not (unlike most texts of this sort), it is not only clear, but you
understand why the matter under discussion is important. Few readers will
grow impatient with the hard parts, but rather will be quite willing to
slowly work through the various arguments and positions and viewpoints.
Just when the going gets a bit rough, a clever illustration appears or
a good case study. Some of them made me want to right away ask somebody–“Hey,
what do you think about this? What would you do?”

Dr. Hollinger is exceptionally fair-minded and delightfully ecumenical.
He draws on such a wide array of thinkers and scholars that I found myself
grinning–few authors really care about both Carl Henry (practically
the father of contemporary evangelicalism) and Rosemary Ruether (a radical,
Catholic eco-feminist.) To see pacifism dealt with respectfully from a
scholar with serious Calvinist leanings did my heart good. (For those
few who may care, by the way, I first learned of John Howard Yoder’s
Politics of Jesus–which Hollinger calls one of the
more provacative ethics books of the 20th century–from hard-lined
Dutch Calvinist Peter J. Steen. And Rich Mouw, whose books I always read,
is as ecumenical and fair a Calvinist as I’ve ever read. And Hollinger
cites him often!)

Besides being ecumenical and widely-read, Hollinger seems to have incorporated
the very best of these various scholars and the passions and concerns
which animate their work. Many ethics texts, I have found, tend either
too strongly in one direction or the other; they are strong on explaining
structural sin and corporate issues, or they are personalistic and helpful
only in developing private morality. Again, Hollinger moves back and forth,
covering all the necessary ground, using case studies as diverse as a
lonely traveler who falls into an inappropriate sexual liaison to a friend
of his who worked at the State Department, with significant ambiguity
about his role in the bombing of Kosovo. Some case studies are from the
two-thirds world (what does a Christian do in a tribal culture
where certain marriage mores are nearly non-negotiable and what can we
learn from their struggles?), while others are quite common for most Western
readers. For Hollinger, faithful Christian living and healthy moral living
must find application and embodiment in the very midst of the complex
cultures and places in which we find ourselves. Discipleship is down-to-earth
and practical and sweeps across the whole of life. Finally, even for this
college-level philosophy prof, nothing abstract or theoretical will do.
This is urgent and necessary stuff.

So, this is why I like this marvelous work. Let me tell you about its

Firstly, Hollinger starts with an overview and an introduction that lays
out his plan. What a helpful and interesting chapter–read it right
away, and you will want to dive into the rest! You will serve God more
dearly just having read those few pages, thick as they are with insight
and caring advice. From the outset, he also makes it clear that admitting
ethical complexity is not the same as moral relativism. It is an important
distinction to keep in mind as the mind will boggle soon enough.

In a tough-going couple of opening chapters, Choosing… tells
of a few different schools of thought, looking at them carefully and in
of a consistent Christian viewpoint. The heart of the first half of
this debate can be described as “Consequences versus Principles”
(Chapter 1). As may be obvious, it asks whether moral discernment ought
to be guided largely by the fruits and results of the decision or is normed
by principles, rules and laws. The more one reads the different philosophers
and theologians, the more one ponders the case studies,
the more interesting this becomes.

The second half of this debate, though, gets even more interesting.
Rather than asking about what we do (either the consequentialist or the
principled view), another perspective suggests that it is more a question
of “who we are.” This is called “character ethics,”
which is a view based on virtue. In other words, the question is less
about what we do but what we are. Some readers will know
that the most famous modern Christian spokesperson for this view (and
what a colorful spokesperson he is!) is Duke professor and all around
trouble-maker, Stanley Hauerwas.

I have great appreciation for Hauerwas’ view, an appreciation that
I found Hollinger putting into concise and helpful terms. Paraphrasing
even his brief summary, it has much to do with Hauerwas’s huge claim
that the ethical life–nay, the Christian life–is not
guided by rules or laws that we figure out, but by the very way in which
we see life. It is foundational in this sense, worldviewish, presuppositional,
deep, heart-level. Learning to live into the way of Christ emerges from
a community of character, shaped by Word and Sacrament; the narrative
and Story from which we draw our meaning and construe our lifestyles is
what really matters. This is a good and rich insight, often popularized
by Will Willimon, and eloquently preached by Marva Dawn. It is a key insight
in Steve Garber’s important Fabric of Faithfulness
and, while not exactly the same, seeps out of Walt Bruggeman’s passionate
proclamation that the biblical text shapes our prophetic imagination.
Such thinkers make a powerful case that a community which gathers around
the Word and worship comes out a whole new people, embodying a way of
being that points to, and in some way births, a whole new creation. As
we are (re)newed folk, we do new stuff. Ethics, then, for Hauerwas, sort
of takes care of itself. (What abstract textbook or reasoning process,
aloof from Word and a community of the faithful, can deduce anything about
life, let alone what God wants? Moral quandries? “Seek ye first the

I am grateful that Dennis H. is neither on the pro- or anti-Hauerwas
bandwagon, as many are these days. It would be a glaring mistake not to
include this major writer and his important insight into the book, and
a discerning reader can see Dennis’ earnest appreciation for the
powerful admixture of anabaptist pacifism, Wesleyan holiness and high
church liturgics that shapes Hauerwas. But he is equally clear that the
colorful rhetoric against ethics and reason and natural law coming from

the character ethics school is short-sighted.

Actions and decision do matter. And God has given us certain principles
and foundations. Virtue–what we are–is an important component
of the ethical life, but what we do still does matter. It does
not need to be “either-or.” As is often the case, one extreme
view replaces another. Hollinger helps us off the horns of this dilemma–and
in the acadmeic world, this debate is all the rage right now!–by
affirming insights from the character/virtue tradition without its short-sighted

In an excellent chapter, the book explains just what sort of biblical
worldview should shape and direct our thinking. This shows how and why
Hollinger can maintain such a multi-faceted, wholistic and ecumenical
approach. It is a chapter simply entitled “A Christian Worldview
Foundation for Ethics,” and it is a wonderful biblical overview,
the sort of chapter one could read and reread for sustenance and strength.
Not a hard part of the book, it is essential reading and, oddly, rare
in a book like this. All of the above views and schools can be critiqued
and appreciated in light of this foundational approach–a biblical
worldview shaped by the biblical metanarrative and its key points of creation,
fall, redemption and future consumation.

The next two chapters are very interesting, and these explain the ups
and downs, foibles and potentialities of two contexts–the modern
world and the postmodern world. In two fine sections, Hollinger explains
these often-used words, highlights the ethos of each era and how they
have presented unique and sometimes devastating challenges for faithful
Christian living. Only a major book like Craig Gay’s stellar The
Way of the (Modern) World: Why It Is Hard To Live As If God Mattered

does as good of a job of expressing how these pressures have shaped and
deformed our ethical/moral sensibilities and practices.

Making Ethical Decisions
Part Three is where the book gets remarkably down to earth. Anyone who
is mentoring another should have this material at their fingertips; pastors
and preachers should review it regularly.

Clear and precise, Hollinger gives three motifs for making ethical decisions,
shows just how to use the Bible (and this is really, really good stuff
for anyone who loves to read and wonders how to apply the Word) and even
has a major chapter on questions about the role of empirical evidence
in the making of ethical decisions. (In other words, we all may agree
that the ethical lifestyle would be one which is ecologically sound, or
one which enhances justice for the poor. But what evidence is there about,
say, the facts of energy use and global warming or, for instance, minimum-wage
laws and the poor? In any such matter, even if we want to do the right
thing, and are shaped by a community which has nurtured in us habits of
heart that are virtuous, we still need uniquely Christian analysis of
the facts on the ground. It is good chapter, especially for those of us
who are eager to be honest and have Godly integrity without seeming partisan
on the burning issues of the day.

Christ and Culture
Oh, if only we could get this sort of balanced and thoughtful awareness
of public theological issues into the hands of those who so often speak
out on TV and the religious press. Again, Hollinger is wise and careful
here, dissecting the various schools of thought about just how Christians
should relate to the surrounding culture. What about pluralism? How do
we influence the society? What does it mean to pursue justice? Certainly
laypeople in the working world, students in college and every pastor who
cares about her congregants should be struggling with these matters.

These are burning, burning questions and the best books are often very
academic or a bit shallow. Some give solid political insight–Paul
Marshall’s new book, God and the Constitution: Christianity
and American Politics
, is brilliant and a must-read for good Christian
citizenship! Others give more cultural motivation, like the helpful but
rather light-weight Roaring Lambs by Bob Briner. (And you
know how much we love Bill Romanowski’s Finding God in Popular
, which, incidentally, won a coveted “Gold Medallion
Award” this year!) But for foundational, general theories of how
to get at the whole “make a difference, being salt and light, in
the world but not of it” Kingdom vision, I think this studious but
clear exposition will be an immense help. Praise God for such good thinking,
aimed at helping us live virtuously, for God’s sake, in love of neighbor,
making a difference whenever and wherever possible. Choosing the Good:
Christian Ethics in a Complex World
is a serious-minded book for serious
times. Let us hope it is taken seriously.


Along with this month’s theme on ethics, here are a few other really
great and important new titles that seem related. I think you would want
to know about them, especially to complement a serious study of Hollinger’s

Hero for Humanity: A Biography of William Wilberforce
by Kevin Belmonte (NavPress, $24.00).
A thick hardback, a great gift,
and a page-turner bio. Many of us use Wilberforce’s lengthy and tireless
Christian political campaign against slavery as the classic example
of faithful reform efforts, but sadly, few know much about the man and
his many, many projects. This may be the definitive work, with a good
forward by Charles Colson. If Wilberforce was a fascinating man who changed
the world, this book is a fascinating read, which could allow you to persevere
in your efforts to change the world.

The Right Questions: Truth, Meaning and Public Debate
by Phillip Johnson (IVP, $16.00).
This solid little hardback is an
excellent collection of essays examining, well, if not the right answers,
at least the right questions. Johnson is known for his thoughtful critique
of the assumptions of naturalistic Darwinism and is now vibrant in his
energetic insistence that Christians help shape the public debate in coherent
and moral terms. From debate about the Human Genome Project to the underpinnings
of education, from the quest for meaning to religious pluralism, this
is a good and helpful guide to public discussion.
Provocative and well-worth considering.

My Brother’s Keeper: What Social Sciences Do (and Don’t)
Tell Us About Masculinit
y by Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen (IVP,
If morality matters at all and Christian living means to
find a Godly and normative way of being in the world, certainly (certainly!)
our ways of construing our maleness or femaleness is central to our task
of being human and, hence, of being good.

This topic is with us always, and the brokenness surrounding our sexuality
and gender roles is among the most painful to behold. This
very week I had the unsettling privilege of addressing a rather large
group of court-adjudicated men appointed to undergo treatment for domestic
violence. I was asked to talk about being a man. It was not easy. It should
be so obvious that these are essential issues. Ergo, this is a very, very
important book to have and to use with others!

And: after the feisty and very critical review I wrote a few months back
against the popular nonsense of John Elderidge’s best-selling Wild
at Heart
, I really want to mention this book as a major contribution
to serious study of men, in light of a clearly Christian worldview.

Ethical Ambition: Living a Life of Meaning and Worth
by Derrick Bell
(Bloomsbury, $19.95).
This book is garnering extraordinary reviews.

Folks I admire, such as Jonathan Kozol, rave about its integrity and care.
It is obviously written with flare and passion, and one reviewer says
it “moved me first to tears and then to action.” It is about
the daunting challenge of living what we believe in a world of complicated
structures and pressures. Intellectual, passionate and literary, Peter
Gomes called him “a gift to the nation.” It is on my short list
to tackle soon.

War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning by Chris Hedges
(Public Affairs, $23.00).
I considered making this remarkable work
the lead review this month as it deserves more than this blurb. Hedges
is a fine and good man, a war correspondent with a degree from Harvard
Divinity School. Not a pacifist, he nonetheless hates war and the war
ethos–he has seen and smelled and tasted it up close, on nearly every
Some of this is nearly too brutal too describe. Other parts are so literary
and insightful that I wanted to photo-copy pages and hand them out. After
reading a dozen pages, I gave it to my Congressman. As one General Wesley
Clark (former Supreme Allied Commander, Europe) has said, “Hedges
has written a powerful book, one which bears sad witness to what veterans
have long understood–that the fine and seemingly noble sentiments
of wartime soon pass, and can leave behind the wasted hearts and minds
of the young who have heeded their call. War is a culture all its own,
he warns, and it can undercut and ultimately destroy the civil societies
that engage in it. …those charged with leading (that) defense must recognize
the consequences of the forces and passions they arouse. Most important,
Hedges provides a somber and timely warning to those–in any society–who
would evoke the emotion of war for the pursuit of political gain.”

This patriotic book reminds us that patriotism is dangerous, that the
ethos of a culture engaged in war is dangerous, that war itself is more
dangerous than most know. He knows the classics, sites Greek dramas, Shakespeare,
Bible stories and great republican scholars. And he has seen some of the
worst stuff of the last 50 years. Through it all, I am very, very glad
to have this book, and hold it like a friend and ally. I want others to
read it. Maybe it will help us all be more careful, more caring, more
wise. Perhaps we should all send it to our Congress people.

God and the Constitution: Christianity and American Politics
by Paul Marshall (Rowman & Littlefield, $27.95).
I mentioned this
briefly while discussing Hollinger’s good section on social ethics
and the need to relate Christian truths to the pluralistic public square.
This is the best book on this subject and I think poorly titled. It really
isn’t about the Constitution as such, but, more widely, about a uniquely
biblical vision for statecraft, jurisprudence, citizenship and politics.
A fine writer, a clear book, and well worth the pricey cost. In many ways,
this appears to be a reworking of the previous Eerdman’s masterpiece,
now outdated and out of print, entitled Thine Is The Kingdom.
This is a very useful resource.

Sense and Sensuality: Jesus Talks with Oscar Wilde on the Pursuit
of Pleasure
by Ravi Zacharias (Multnomah, $9.99). Yep,
you read that right. This is the second in the “Great Conversations”
series with master apologist Ravi Z writing little fictional discussions
between contrasting worldviews. (The first one was called The Lotus
and the Cross
and was a dialogue between Jesus and Buddha.)

Here, Jesus (with some help from Blaise Pascal, whose books were in fact
read by the great playboy playwright) does head-to-head–and heart-to-heart–with
the notions of pleasure and sensuality lived so fully by Wilde. While
on his deathbed in November 1900, dying from syphilis, dear Oscar seemed
to undergo a conversion to Christ. He requested a biblical text from Job
to be placed on his gravestone. To this day, his journey is a fascinating,
if painful, one to consider. More importantly, Ravi is putting his sharp
mind to the task of deconstructing perhaps the chief idol of the Western
world–hedonism and sensuality. God, of course, loves pleasure. So
what, we overhear Jesus ask Wilde, might be the relationship between sense
and sensuality, between head and heart, between the good and the beautiful.
It is a discussion worth having.

Habits of the High-Tech Heart by Quentin Schultze (Baker,
A few CCO staff have studied under “Quent,” and
he is increasingly known as a fun man of deep insight. This new book,
with the intriguing subtitle “Living Virtuously in the Information
Age” is getting very good comments from world-class critics such
as Walter Ong, Clifford Stoll and Mark Noll. Richard Mouw says: “What
are the new information technologies ‘doing’ to us as human beings? Quentin
Schultze’s exploration of this has amazing breadth and offers profound
insights. This is a virtuous book about cultivating the virtues in an
information age.” We ignore this book at our peril!

Common Objects of Love: Moral Reflection and the Shaping of Community
by Oliver O’Donovan (Eerdmans, $15.00).
O’Donovan has been gaining
respect for years and is, for some, the most significant theological ethicist
of our time. Although his major works are important, this brief collection
of a set of lectures done at Calvin College (the prestigious Stob Lectures)
is a wonderful, learned and far-reaching way to become familiar with his
chief and important themes. Look also for a spectacular book about
his work coming later this month (A Royal Priesthood? The Use of
the Bible Ethically & Politically–a Dialogue with Oliver O’Donovan
which includes his responses to a dozen friends and critics–from
N.T. Wright to Craig Bartholomew to Jim Skillen. Co-edited by Al Wolters
(Zondervan, $34.99).