Category Archives: Book Review

Foundations for a life that pleases God

Yesterday I started a series on the book of Ephesians. I used the opportunity to lay out some of the major themes of the book as foundations for living a life pleasing to God.

The reality and character of God. In our secular age, it has become rather popular to jettison the idea of God all together as a mere illusion or crutch and to find some other foundation of life. Even among people who believe in God, He is far from foundational, instead, He is a peripheral part of life which we bring in or throw out as seems useful to our own goals. But for Paul, the reality and character of God forms the very foundation for every other argument he makes.

Reality: What Paul assumes in Ephesians, the writer of Hebrews makes explicit: “Without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him” (Hebrews 11:6).

Character: Paul is less interested in defending the reality of God than he is in describing his character. Indeed, the purpose of much of Ephesians is simply to draw his readers to love and worship God. God is the creator of all things (3:89). He is “over all and through all and in all” (4:6). He is the “glorious Father” (1:17). And, He is characterized by great love and as being “rich in mercy” (2:4). In this vision of God, He is the creator and sustainer of all things – and thus serves as a good foundation not only for our personal lives but for the entire cosmos. Further, He is not a distant and removed creator, but one who loves and shows mercy to his creation.

God’s work in Christ. Many monotheistic religions would affirm this vision of God as the foundation for life, but what makes Christianity unique is this second foundational principle: God’s work in Christ. God’s work in Christ naturally flows out of his love and mercy. How does He show us love and mercy? By sending His one and only Son into the world to save the world (John 3:16). And what did Jesus do? He gave us “redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins” (1:7). He “brought us near [to God] by the blood of Christ” (2:13). He “raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms” (1:19b-20).

The Christian faith rests on the foundation of the historical reality of Jesus, on His historical death, resurrection, and ascension into heaven. Through this reality we can be forgiven, redeemed, reconciled, and made alive.

God’s gifts, given through Christ. Through the work of Christ, and out of the boundless riches of God’s mercy and grace, God gives gifts to those who believe in him. These gifts are expanded throughout the letter but nowhere more than in Ephesians 3:3-10 (explanatory video in the link), but for the purposes of this blog I will focus on just three which are mentioned in 1:1-2: Paul’s apostleship, Grace, and Peace.

Paul’s apostleship: In some circles, it has become popular to accept the teachings of Jesus but reject Paul, but to do so would be a mistake. Indeed, God has given us apostolic teaching as one of the key foundations for the church (2:20). Specifically, God gave Paul special insight (revelation) into the mystery of the gospel; that Gentiles could be saved and incorporated into the people of God in the same way that Jews could, through faith alone, apart from the law. It was in large part due to Paul’s special mission to the Gentiles that the church expanded the way that it did.

Grace: Grace is God’s unmerited favor and this unmerited favor is what leads to our salvation. It equips us to serve the body of Christ, making it mature in the faith. And, will be revealed in its fullness when Jesus returns.

Peace: In our harried 21st century lives we’re particularly interested in how to achieve inner peace, but the peace which Paul refers to in Ephesians is, first, peace with God and second, peace with one another within the body of Christ. But, it makes sense that if we were to achieve peace in these first two senses, an inner peace would likely follow.

Without these gifts – knowledge of the gospel revealed through Paul’s apostleship, grace, and peace – the Christian life would be impossible. We would simply lack the power to accomplish what God has commanded us to do.

Our identity in Christ: Paul spends a large portion of his letter exhorting Christians to obey God. But prior to these commands he identifies his audience as “God’s holy people… faithful in Christ Jesus.” This identity comes first and foremost from what God has done for us. Out of God’s great mercy he sent Jesus. Jesus died on the cross and rose again. It is through this work that God grants us the gifts of grace and peace. And, it is these gifts which make us truly holy in the eyes of God. We’re objectively holy, with a righteousness that comes from God and is received through faith, even before we are subjectively and imperfectly holy. Indeed, our faithfulness flows out of this new identity in Christ, and apart from that identity, living a faithful life would be impossible.

There are many things in life competing for our core identity. But our identity in Christ is the only one which will never, can never, be shaken.

Actions: Only after laying this firm foundation does Paul lay out the moral exhortations later in the letter: “I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received” (4:1). It may be useful to think of Christianity as an iceberg. Most of the iceberg is below the surface. This forms the foundation of the iceberg and makes that which is above the water stable.

In Christianity, this foundation is the rich theological principles of the character of God, God’s work in Christ, God’s revelation, grace, and peace poured out on us, and the reality that when received by faith these form in us a new and lasting identity. The “above the surface” part of the Christian faith is what we actually do. These too are essential, but are not foundational. We make a mistake when we flip the proportions of the iceberg, when we make Christianity essentially about what we do, de-emphasizing theology and the incredible work of God. Such a faith is fundamentally unstable. If we get the foundations right, the actions, while still requiring the hard work of obedience, will follow naturally.

Book Review: Youth Ministry in the 21st Century: Five Views

youthminMy first thought when I saw the title of this book: “I didn’t even know there were five distinct views, what could they possibly be?” Here they are, in a nutshell:

The Gospel Advancing View by Greg Stier: This view focuses on evangelism, on saving the lost. Stier believes that discipleship happens when the mission (the Great Commission, the “Cause”) is at the forefront.

The Reformed View by Brian Cosby: This view attempts to apply consistently Reformed beliefs and practices to Youth Ministry. This includes an emphasis on faithfulness instead of “success” and a emphasis on the “means of grace”: the Word, prayer, and sacraments, as the primary drivers for youth ministry.

The Adoption View by Chap Clark: Clark believes that we have erred and become too individualistic in our view of discipleship and need to focus, instead, on building up the body of Christ. This view emphasizes the need for churches to “adopt” children into “family” of God by including them more deeply within the broader church.

The Ecclesial View by Fernando Arzola: Like the Adoption view, the Ecclesial view focuses on the Church. Where the adoption view emphasizes the local church congregation, the ecclesial view focuses on the “one, holy, catholic, apostolic” church. It emphasizes connecting youth with the historic church.

The D6 View by Ron Hunter: “D6” stands for Deuteronomy 6. This view argues that it’s God’s design that parents should play the primary role in discipling their children and that the church’s job is to lay the theological foundation, equip the parents for their work, and come along side the parents in a supporting role. The D6 model also emphasizes having and integrated approach to children, youth, young adult, and family ministry where ministry leaders work towards a common goal.

Analysis: In my initial estimation, the Adoption view and the D6 view made the strongest case for being the overarching philosophy for youth ministry. The others are important to keep in mind as well, though, and could provide necessary correctives when things get out of balance.

I’m curious, which of these types of youth groups did you grow up with? What worked and what didn’t?

Book Review: The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt

The Righteous Mind_I finished this book about a week ago and would have liked to have a more thorough review. Time doesn’t permit, so instead, I want to share a few brief thoughts. I suspect several of the themes of this book will work their way into my regular thinking on a few topics.

1) Haidt is a brilliant psychologist. He does a great job of explaining the way people think. I found myself fully convinced by his first two points which were that (a) our moral intuitions drive our moral reasoning most of the time and (b) that our moral intuitions are based on six moral “taste buds”.

2) Related: Everyone should familiarize themselves with Moral Foundation Theory and how/why it divides conservatives, progressives, and libertarians. This by itself is worth the price of the book.

3) My deepest critique of the book is not of Haidt as a moral psychologist, but Haidt as a philosopher. He offers an account of the origin of morality and religion that is purely evolutionary. For Haidt, both arose out of natural group selection because they helped groups outperform other groups. He is, therefore, relatively friendly towards religion. It’s helpful, for Haidt, it (along with morality) is an illusion.

4) This leaves Haidt’s “oughts” hollow. He ultimately argues for a sort of utilitarianism that is less individualistic, but does not (cannot) explain how he got to that conclusion. He makes many moral judgments throughout the book, but doesn’t have any of the tools to back them up. He just assumes that they will be self-evident to the reader.

5) The end result is that a lot of the descriptive parts of the book are very helpful for understanding individuals, politics, and culture. And a lot of his main points coincide very well with a biblical point of view. For instance, the Bible also teaches that we have “innate” moral intuitions. The Bible also bases its moral laws on various moral foundations (harm/care, fairness, proportionality, liberty, sanctity, etc.). The Bible also teaches that those intuitions can be trained through culture, law, parents, etc. The Bible also teaches that we operate as both individuals and as groups, etc. And these principles can be helpful in how we relate with people in different groups, even how believers share the gospel, etc. And yet, chunks of the book will nevertheless be frustrating.

6) One final thought: Haidt’s description of moral intuition as taste buds is apt. The problem is that for Haidt these don’t correspond to objective reality. I think they do. I think that these taste buds are more than just helpful tools to allow us to work together as groups to accomplish amazing things. I think they correspond to an objective moral reality. Good really is good. Evil really is evil. And the fact that we have the sense to see that, is evidence of that reality, and evidence of an ultimate law giver to his given us moral minds to see it.

Book Review: Prophetic Lament

Prophetic Lament: A Call for Justice in Troubled Times by Soong-Chan Rah, like the book of Lamentations of which it is is a sort of hyper-contextualized commentary, offers a counterbalance to the dominant voices of triumphalism in our culture and reminds us of the role of lament in Israel’s history, and in ours.

Prophetic Lament works through the book of Lamentations chapter by chapter and theme by theme. It is not a traditional commentary. Instead it looks primarily at the “big picture” of the book, how it is structured (acrostics in four of the chapters), its genres (funeral dirge, city lament), its voices (the narrator, the people in the city), and its major themes. Rah then applies those big picture elements to the context of the American Church, primarily to issues of racial injustice.

Prophetic Lament offers balance to the more common voices in American Evangelicalism.

Rah calls for incorporating lament into our worship, instead of only praise and triumphalism: “The loss of lament in the American church reflects a serious theological deficiency.” He encourages us to listen to voices other than just white men. He reminds us of the reality of corporate sin and the need for corporate confession, instead of only viewing sin through a hyper-individualistic lens.

Other major themes include God’s sovereignty, including his sovereignty in judgment and the need to look at the raw and uncomfortable reality of the “dead body in front of us”, the ravages of sin and injustice in the world. Applying this to racial injustice Rah states “Our nations tainted racial history reflects a serious inability to real with reality. Something has died and we refuse to participate in the funeral.”

Prophetic Lament, like Lamentations, can be bleak. But, like Lamentations, the glimmer of hope resides not in our abilities but in God’s faithfulness to his covenant. God’s judgment comes out of his faithfulness to his covenant. And so, if God is faithful, it is that same covenant faithfulness which brings about ultimate restoration. That restoration, Rah reminds us, is finally found in the saving work of Jesus.

In the mean time we lament. We have failed to live up to God’s standards and so we repent where necessary, listening to the voice of those who suffer, advocating for our brothers and sisters, moving forward in hope that is anchored in the character of God.

I’m not sure if Rah always makes all of his points. The book deals with some highly controversial topics and I was not always convinced by his arguments. His applications of the text sometimes felt contrived. But overall he offers an important perspective. I agree that, in many ways, we as an American church have a hard time entering into sustained lament. We stick a toe in, perhaps, but jump out as soon as possible. We have a hard time listening to other perspectives (particularly in regards to race!) Perhaps we ought to begin by grieving together, acknowledging the ways we have failed. Ultimately I am grateful for the voices of those like Soong-Chan Rah, challenging the status quo.

Summary and Book Review: The Good of Affluence

Summary

The Good of Affluence by John R. Schneider lays out a theological framework, primarily through interpreting the biblical text, by which to view wealth. In many ways this book is a defense of affluence over and against the view that the wealthy should divest themselves of most or all of their luxuries in order to provide necessities to the global poor. It is also, to a lesser degree, a defense of capitalism as a means of creating wealth which benefits both the rich and the poor alike.

Before entering into an analysis of the biblical narrative, Schneider makes an important observation about modern capitalism. In his view, capitalism is a “new” and different way of acquiring wealth which the world did not know in biblical times. For most of human history great wealth (affluence) was acquired primarily by taking it from other people through unjust means such as war, thievery, or taxation which rose to the level of extortion. But capitalism is different in that it is not a “zero-sum” game. In capitalism wealth is acquired by adding value into the whole system, which raises the level of all, or most, of those involved in the process. “When capitalism really works, every member of society becomes affluent to some comparative degree and (as D’Souza’s numbers show) that is exactly what has happened in some nations. The cultures that capitalism helps to create do not merely contain great wealth. They are cultures of wealth” (25). This “new” form of wealth building is a set of “new wine skins” which require a fresh look at the data, namely, the biblical text.

From there Schneider works through the biblical narrative. He begins with creation (chapter 2) and observes that God’s original intention was for people to live in a state of material delight. This was Adam and Eve’s experience in the garden before the Fall and it is where we are heading after the resurrection. From there he moves to the exodus and the laws of the Old Testament (chapter 3). Here he argues that part of the exodus meant moving the people from a position of slavery (including economic slavery) and into a position of delight and economic freedom – life in the promised land.  The laws which govern the people in the promised land do indeed include care for the economically vulnerable but they are followed with the promise of God’s material blessing. Schneider interprets the Jubilee, not as primarily a radical concern for the poor (since many of the most vulnerable – foreigners, for instance, were left out of any benefits the Jubilee might have brought) but as a way to re-establish God’s people in the land – a sort of re-living of the exodus.

At this point Schneider also introduces a principle central to the book, that of moral proximity. The principle of moral proximity essentially means that the closer one’s “moral proximity” is to someone else the greater one’s obligations. For Schneider this means that we are most responsible for our immediate family and have only loose obligations towards the global poor.

In chapter 4 Schneider reviews the Prophets and Wisdom literature. He focuses primarily on Proverbs and the book of Amos. His central thesis here is these writings assume God’s original intention of delight while, at the same time, decrying the abuses of the wealthy over and against the poor. He summarizes his view of Amos in the following way:

“It is a matter of become a mature person with a vision of the Lord and a heart for people, especially the poor and powerless. The rich must be liberated not from riches but from the selfish mind and the heart of the serpent. We must have the mind of God, the true Lord, who is our servant. We must strive toward the light of the exodus vision and recover the spirituality of redemptive power, which turns our delight into love” (106).

Schneider then moves to the New Testament, beginning with the Incarnation (chapter 5), Jesus’ teaching and his call to discipleship – the parable of the rich ruler, the call of Zacchaeus (chapter 6) – and Jesus’ parables (chapter 7). Here Schneider argues that Jesus did not call all to completely divest themselves of property but that he did call all to creatively use their wealth for kingdom purposes. Finally, Schneider moves to the early church, particularly to Acts, James, and Paul’s appeal for funds to help the church in Jerusalem (chapter 8). All in all, his review of the biblical text is representative and he deals with some of the more difficult passages to Scripture without (in my opinion) being evasive.

Schneider concludes the book (epilogue) with a reflection on how his view of affluence might be understood in a world of poverty. His conclusion here is that what holds people in poverty is not a lack of hard work or from a lack of capital, but systems which have not allowed for the release of capital. He summarizes the work of Hernando de Soto who argues that what is common to all stagnant economies is a lack of functioning rules regarding property, which are necessary for the creation of wealth. If this is true then the problems of these countries can’t be solved (at least not in the long-term) through external aid. Instead they need to be solved internally, through the creation of necessary economic infrastructure. The second implication is that in this view the “global poor” are not a problem which needs to be solved, but are in fact, are themselves the solution.

Review

Of Schneider’s work I have two words of commendation, one of critique, and one of warning.

First, Schneider’s exegetical work is of the first order. He offers scholarly, clean, and convincing arguments. Those who would disagree with him, if they are believers, will first need to deal with his formidable exegetical work. Second, reviews which state that Schneider is arguing that wealthy Christians have no obligation to the global poor are mistaken. They simply do not understand Schneider’s argument. If everything looks like greed then the only answer they will accept is divestment of property. But Schneider views the world in a very different way (more nuanced and complex) so they don’t recognize his solutions when he states them.

My critique is that Schneider offers very little in terms of concrete applications to the reader. I believe this is intentional on the author’s part, but it is still frustrating. I was personally hoping for a bigger payoff in his epilogue. I understand his “solution” I think, but I have no idea how I can play any part in it.

Finally, a warning: This book could be read by the rich to justify either inaction or indifference. Again, this is not the author’s intention. I simply state it this way: Wealth, while a blessing from God can, because of our sinful natures, become a deceptive snare. If you have been blessed with affluence Schneider’s call would be to creatively use your wealth in service to others.

10 non-inspirational quotes from Bonhoeffer’s Life Together

life-together.jpgNote 1: This is not a list of inspiring quotes. Bonhoeffer’s words do not inspire, at least in the “make feel you happy” kind of way we usually use the word. They cut with the sharp knife of truth.

Note 2: It was hard to select only 10 quotes. I had to cut out all the quotes I wanted to select from the first chapter since I had already covered them here.

Note 3: All page numbers refer to Life Together published by Harper One, 1954.

Note 4: These quotes don’t really do this book justice. I recommend you get your own copy and read all these in context.

On the importance of starting out the day in worship:

“At the threshold of the new day stands the Lord who made it. All the darkness and distraction of the dreams of night retreat before the clear light of Jesus Christ and his wakening Word. All unrest, all impurity, all care and anxiety flee before him. Therefore, at the beginning of the day let all distraction and empty talk be silenced and let the first thought of the first word belong to him to whom our whole life belongs.” (43)

Commentary: Bonhoeffer’s proscription for daily personal and community worship are intense by today’s standards. They include reciting a psalm, reading at least a chapter of the Bible (in family worship), meditating on a shorter section (in personal worship), singing, and prayer. He recommends at least an hour a day of personal devotions for pastors (I’m failing). In this quote he is emphasizing the importance of giving the first part of the day to God in worship.

On the importance of having the right attitude of the heart in worship:

“Where the heart is not singing there is no melody, there is only the dreadful medley of human self-praise. Where the singing is not to the Lord, it is singing to the honor of the self or the music, and the new song becomes a song to idols.” (58-59)

Commentary: Bonhoeffer does not get hung up on the externals of musical worship – though he does, surprising, stress the importance of singing in unison. His most pointed passages on this topic are when he stresses the importance of the heart of the singer. These are some convicting words.

On the importance of practicing both Christian fellowship and Christian solitude:

“Each by itself has profound pitfalls and perils. One who wants fellowship without solitude plunges into the void of words and feelings, and one who seeks solitude without fellowship perishes in the abyss of vanity, self-infatuation, and despair. Let him who cannot be alone beware of community. Let him who is not in community beware of being alone.” (78)

Commentary: This book is called “Life Together” but Bonhoeffer devotes one chapter to time in silence and solitude. He sees the two not in opposition, but as playing complimentary roles. Time alone prepares you for time together and time together prepares you for time alone. Each is dangerous by itself.

On the nature of silence as it pertains to Christian solitude:

“Silence is the simple stillness of the individual under the Word of God… Silence is nothing else but waiting for God’s Word and coming from God’s Word with a blessing.” (79)

Commentary: Bonhoeffer is insistent that we not step away from the Word of God during our times of solitude. In fact, time with the Word is central to the whole process. He speaks of meditation, but not as an emptying process by which we clear our minds, but as a filling process so that we might overflow with the Word of God.

On testing the effectiveness of solitude and fellowship:

“Has fellowship served to make the individual free, strong, and mature, or has it made him weak and dependent? Has it taken him by the hand for a while in order that he may learn again to walk by himself, or has it made him uneasy and unsure? … Furthermore, this [test] is the place where we find out whether the Christian’s meditation has led him into the unreal, from which he awakens in terror when he returns to the workaday world, or whether it has led him into a real contact with God, from which he emerges strengthened and purified.” (88)

Commentary: The “test” to which Bonhoeffer is referring is time in a world hostile to Christian living, something he surely knew well. It is in this test that we can tell whether or not our time along and time together have really been effective.

On the priority of listening:

“One who cannot listen long and patiently will presently be talking beside the point and be never really speaking to others, albeit he be not conscious of it.” (98)

Commentary: See the quotes below on the importance of Christian rebuke among a fellowship of believers. But before we can ever speak, either words of encouragement or rebuke, we must really listen.

On the basis of Christian encouragement and rebuke:

“We speak to one another on the basis of the help we both need. We admonish one another to go the way that Christ bids us to go. We warn one another against the disobedience that is our common destruction. We are gentle and we are severe with one another, for we know both God’s kindness and God’s severity.” (106)

Commentary: The basis of either Christian encouragement or rebuke is, surprisingly, the doctrine of sin. This is the “help we both need” to which Bonhoeffer is referring in the above quote. Of course, this only works if we first honestly consider ourselves the worse of sinners.

On the importance of godly reproof:

“Reproof is unavoidable. God’s Word demands it when a brother falls into open sin. … Nothing can be more cruel than the tenderness that consigns another to his sin. Nothing can be more compassionate than the severe rebuke that calls a brother back from the path of sin. It is a ministry of mercy, an ultimate offer of genuine fellowship, when we allow nothing but God’s Word to stand between us, judging and succoring.” (107)

Commentary: On a personal note, God is slowly but surely strengthening my spine. Reproof and rebuke are never easy but, as Bonhoeffer rightly states, are unavoidable if we hope to really care for the spiritual life of another.

On the nature of genuine spiritual authority:

“Genuine authority realizes that it can exist only in the service of Him who alone has authority… The question of trust, which is so closely related to that of authority, is determined by the faithfulness with which a man serves Jesus Christ, never by the extraordinary talents which he possess. Pastoral authority can be attained only by the servant of Jesus who seeks no power of his own.” (109)

Commentary: So often authority is coercive. For Bonhoeffer this is anathema. Because we are never to have “direct access” to another soul we must always only approach people as mediated through Christ. This means we serve others best (which is the basis of Christian authority) when we serve Christ first.

On the destructive cycle of sin and withdrawal:

“Sin demands to have a man by himself. It withdraws him from the community. The more isolated a person is, the more destructive will be the power of sin over him, and the more deeply he comes involved in it, the more disastrous his isolation.” (112)

Commentary: How do we break the cycle of sin and isolation? Bonhoeffer’s answer: Confession, specifically to someone who has a personal understanding of the grace of God in Jesus.

Outliers: Gut reaction

outliers-malcolm-gladwellMy most recent in-car entertainment was Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell. Gladwell’s thesis is that, contrary to the myth of the “self-made” man, the success of “outliers” (extraordinarily successful people) has more to do with luck and the world in which they grew up than it has to do with innate intelligence and drive. Here is my gut reaction to the book:

What I liked:

Gladwell stresses the importance of community as a driving force behind success. I think this resonates with what I have come to understand as a very biblical concept. Humans are innately social individuals who were created to live within community. We are interdependent and our identity is bound to the communities in which we live. I agree with much of his critique of “rugged individualism.”

Second, Gladwell specifically discusses the importance of culture. He does a good job demonstrating how South Korean culture made Korean Air one of the least safe airlines in the world between 1970 and 1999 (it has since turned around), how the high honor/shame culture of Ireland and Scotland made Tennessee and Kentucky so dangerous during the period of the Hatfield’s and McCoy’s, and how the Chinese culture that arose from rice farming has helped Asian students perform well in math. These are all touchy subjects because Gladwell is making values judgments on cultures, something modern Americans are afraid to do. But he’s right in saying that each culture has strengths and weaknesses and that it’s important what they are. Again, from a pastoral/biblical perspective this makes sense. Each culture has constructive and destructive elements to it. We are unwise to think that the culture we currently live in is somehow the “best” or is above critique.

Third, Gladwell stresses the importance of hard work. One of the key components to his argument is the 10,000 hour rule. It states that you need to work at something for 10,000 hours before you become proficient at it. He applies this to hockey players, computer programmers, musicians, and lawyers. Gladwell’s stress is on someone’s opportunity to work those 10,000 hours. For instance, Bill Gates had the opportunity to develop skills as a computer programmer because he had unparalleled access to a computer lab which only very few people had access to. However, I think it is also worthwhile to note that not only is opportunity important, but so is willingness. More people than just Bill Gates had access to that lab. But he was the one who had the willingness to put in the time. Regardless, Gladwell’s emphasis on hard work parallel’s biblical admonitions to the same.

What frustrated me:

For the first couple of chapters Outliers drove me a little crazy. It really felt like Gladwell was “explaining away” the success of successful individuals. In other words, I felt as though he was detracting from their success by finding alternative explanations which existed outside of themselves, as though their success was somehow an inevitable sociological process. This kind of “explaining away” in sociology isn’t unusual, but it’s still frustrating. There were times when Gladwell would speak in false dichotomies (he was successful because of A, not B) when the more obvious explanation of the data should have led Gladwell to state (he was successful because of A and B). Throughout the book, Gladwell softened a bit on this.

I really enjoy social science books but there is always a danger in relying on this science to “explain away” instead of “explaining” human behavior. “Explaining away” leaves no room for human freedom. It makes something probable inevitable. It is deterministic. “Explaining” helps us see various causes and variables, but never removes human freedom.

My alternative explanation and takeaway:

A corollary of Malcom’s thesis is that, through luck, some people simply have opportunities that others don’t have. Really successful people are all successful because they had the right combination of intelligence, drive, hard work, opportunities, cultural background, and lucky breaks. By and large, I agree with this thesis, but with one caveat. As a pastor I would replace “luck” with “Providence.”

In other words, unique opportunities don’t come out of nowhere. They are not random. They are gifts from the God who reigns over history. We need those gifts to be successful, to be sure. No one can succeed “on their own.” We need those opportunities which God provides. What we need to do is to seize them. No one knows beforehand what opportunities God will place in our path. Our opportunities are not all identical. I didn’t get the same opportunities as Bill Gates. That’s OK. I don’t need to worry about that. I need to do is be faithful to the opportunities that God did give me.

Of course, we also need to redefine success. For Christians, “outlier success” isn’t extraordinary wealth or prestige. It’s extraordinary obedience to God. In this way Jim Elliot is as much of an outlier as anyone.

I read an article last week which talks about Gladwell’s re-discovering his Christian faith some time after writing Outliers. I wonder how it would have differed in that new light.