Monthly Archives: August 2014

Book Review: I Wear the Black Hat

I decided to venture out of my Christian non-fiction bubble and read “I Wear the Black Hat”, a secular pop social science book by Chuck Klosertman. It’s one of those books I heard about while listening to NPR. I figured I would be smarter for listening to it (I finally got my CD working in my car and can now check out audio books from the library). “I Wear the Black Hat” was mildly entertaining and Klosterman had some interesting insights into human nature but I, ultimately, found the book unsatisfying.

“I Wear the Black Hat” is a book about villains, real or perceived, or so says the subtitle. Klosterman is ultimately only able to deliver on the second half of that subtitle. This is really a book about perceived villains since Klosterman’s own secular worldview prevents him from making any sure claims of villainy beyond what most people perceive. He’s far more interested in how villainy is viewed than what it is in reality. This is probably exactly what a social science book is supposed to do. But for me, the clash of worldviews was jarring. It’s as though we were ever able to completely come to terms with each other.

Klosterman’s thesis is that the villain is the person who knows the most but cares the least. Exhibit A for this thesis is Pen State Coach Joe Paterno. He’s not a villain because of anything he did but because he knew about what was going on but didn’t care enough to do what he needed to do to stop it. Klosterman’s thesis holds throughout but, by Klosterman’s own admission, falls apart with the quintessential villain of our time, Adolph Hitler. Hitler cared way too much about the wrong things, and didn’t really know a lot about the things that matter. But, even if the thesis didn’t have such a striking case against it, it would still ring hollow, since the whole concept of villainy, and thus the thesis of this book, is probably all just a personal and social construct anyway.

Throughout the book Klosterman wonders whether he himself is a villain. Does he wear the black hat? This is both central to the opening of the book and its conclusion. His conclusion wonderfully illustrates the overall tone of the book. He comes to the conclusion that he is the villain because of the way that he interprets a particular childhood “villain”, knowing that this rival of his is now probably really a good guy, but choosing to view him in the worst possible light. But Klosterman is less worried about his villainy than about the potential that all of this is utterly meaningless anyway. He concludes as follows:

In my own story, I am the villain…

I can see every alternative reality but I prefer to arbitrarily create my own. I know the truth, but I just don’t care.

It’s natural to think of one’s own life as a novel… and within that narrative we are always the central character. Thoughtful people try to overcome this compulsion but they usually fail. In fact, trying usually makes it worse.

I think people can pretend to do it, but they can’t pretend to themselves. I have slowly come to believe that overcoming this self-focused worldview is impossible… I don’t think the human mind is capable of getting outside of that box, and I’m not even sure if this limitation is even particularly problematic.

What makes me nervous is that this movie is … devoid of meaning – the auteur is a nihilist. What if I am the main character but still not the protagonist? What if there is no protagonist? What if there is just an uninteresting person thinking about himself because there is nothing else to think about. I wear the plaid hat.

In this and other passages I felt like I was reading Ecclesiastes 1-2 without the insight of Ecclesiastes 12:13.

I’m really not sure what conclusions to draw from all of this other than a few personal reflections. First, it was eye opening, and a bit sad, to read something written from such a different perspective on reality. I probably should read outside my perspective more often. Second, I’m grateful that my worldview allows for a foundational understanding of evil. How are it must be to always be in danger of having your rug pulled out from under you. Third, “I Wear the Black Hat” is not a bad book (though it does have it’s share of crude language). It is well written and interesting, but it feels ultimately hollow. It was a cream puff, not a steak dinner (but it was still more meaty than a lot of “Christian” books out there). Finally I don’t struggle with the same doubt about whether or not I am a villain. I know that I am. But I also don’t struggle with wondering whether or not my life has any meaning. There is a protagonist in my story. It’s not me, and that’s a good thing. It’s Jesus, and he is able to transform me out of my villainy. He is able to replace my black hat with white robe. And he is the one who infuses my life with meaning.

Ice Bucket Challenge (5 Things that Make me Uncomfortable)

I was nominated for and participated in the Ice Bucket Challenge. It was fun though my wife was a little too enthusiastic when putting the ice in the bucket. Later this week I’ll be donating some of our money towards research that contributes to the fight against ALS. On the whole I see the Ice Bucket Challenge as a net positive in the world. It’s ridiculous, but it’s mostly good. There are, however, a few things that make me uncomfortable about this cultural phenomenon. I’m probably being a contrarian but hey, what’s a blog without a little contrarianism, right?

First, I have heard that some of the major ALS groups fund embryonic stem cell research. Being pro-life, I see this as the destruction of life. The ends don’t justify the means. For that reason I won’t be donating money blindly. I will still contribute specifically to ALS research, but I will be looking for a way to do so that doesn’t also harm human lives.

Second, the ice bucket challenge is based more on peer pressure and guilt than on compassion. The premise is that if you’re nominated, you have to do it and you have to nominate other people. If you’re not nominated, you don’t do it (with the exception of one of my friends). This utilitarian approach works in our society – but as it pertains to the purposes of the heart – it’s a less than ideal reason to support a cause. Why did I do the ice bucket challenge? Honestly the three biggest reasons were (1) to encourage the friend who nominated me, (2) to join in the fun, and (3) to try to convince a former professor to make good on his mock-twitter-promise of doing the challenge while doing the macarena (sp?). None of these are “bad” reasons, per se, but they’re not the best reason to give, and they’re not sustainable.

Third, the ice bucket challenge encourages people to put their “righteousness” on display. The process is all about publicity – publicity for the cause, yes, but also self-publicity. I felt a bit like a Pharisee posting that video online.

Fourth, this meme:

Truth

Truth

This is why I am also sending an additional contribution to Compassion International.

Fifth – really a culmination of the first four – the ice bucket might lead some to a self-congratulatory attitude. I’m not saying this doesn’t support a good cause but let’s not give ourselves too much credit here. It’s a fun, ridiculous, cultural phenomenon. That’s about it.

I only nominated one person in my video and even that nomination was mostly a joke. I meant to say in the video the additional line: “I nominate anyone whose conscience leads them to give to this or any other cause.” If you want to give, give. Give to a cause that you feel good about and that you want to give to regardless of whether someone tells you to dump water on your head. Give from your heart and then don’t make a show of it. Give in secret and your Father will reward you in secret. I got my reward for my challenge which basically amounted to a handful of Facebook “likes.” True generosity which the Lord accepts as pure is that which is done from the right motives and that which is done without the trumpet blast of the Facebook post. If you do the ice bucket challenge, that’s fine. It’s not wrong, just see it for what it really is – dumping ice cold water on your head for the amusement of your friends.

Contrarian out.

Book Review: Radical by David Platt

Radical: Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream by David Platt is an important book for Christians in the West to read. Throughout Platt challenges his readers to shed a materialistic, individualistic worldview the he sees as pervasive in the church and to consider the desperate needs throughout the world – both physical and spiritual – and the demands of the gospel. It has certainly challenged me as a pastor and I’m sure it will challenge you as well.

Instead of offering my own review I will, instead, provide a couple of links to others more articulate than I.

First, I offer a review from Kevin DeYoung. The review is, on the whole, positive, but provides some helpful critiques. Since Kevin invited Platt’s to respond to his critiques this link gives you Platt’s response as well. In my mind the dangers, if there are any, come not from Platt’s theology, but from those who would misunderstand him.

Second, I offer a link to an article asking whether “radical Christianity” forms a new kind of legalism in the church. This is an interesting article and the author makes a lot of good points. It is important that we don’t make “radical” living into form of legalism, though I would argue that such an interpretation was not Platt’s intention.

Third, I offer my response to the “new legalism” article wherein I propose we limit our charge of “legalism.”

In review: Platt’s critique of the Western church are, for the most part, spot on and his call to care for the poor and share the gospel is in line with the mission God has given the church. It’s not a perfect book, but it’s worth a read.

Book Review: Draw the Circle by Mark Batterson

In hindsight, this is a rather charitable review of a book with suspect theology. A more critical review is linked at the bottom.

The Slasher Pastor

Draw the Circle by Mark Batterson is a forty day devotional guide and a companion of sorts to the author’s earlier book The Circle Maker. It takes the ideas from The Circle Maker and applies them in a 40-day prayer challenge. I have not read The Circle Maker but, from what I can gather, it is an exhortation to persistent, faith-filled prayer. Furthermore, while reading The Circle Maker might be helpful, this book really does a pretty good job of standing on its own. I never felt lost or confused.

The style of the book is devotional and pastoral. You can tell it was written by a preacher. It’s filled with some catchy one-liners: “We’re so focused on God changing our circumstances that we never allow God to change us! So instead of ten or twenty years of experience, we have one year of experience repeated ten or twenty…

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