The gospel of sin management vs. the gospel of new creation

22 You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires;23 to be made new in the attitude of your minds; 24 and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness. – Ephesians 4:22-24

In the book Mere Christianity C.S. Lewis asks the question: Is Christianity hard or easy? His response is that it is both hard and easy. It’s hard in that we’re called to give up our selves to follow Jesus – a nearly impossibly hard thing to do. It’s easy in the sense that God enables us to do it by giving us a new identity. It’s easier than doing what many of us try to do: trying to be good without doing the first step of having been made new.

C.S. Lewis puts it like this:

The terrible thing, the almost impossible thing, is to hand over your whole self – all your wishes and precautions – to Christ. But it is far easier than what we are all trying to do instead. For what we are trying to do is to remain what we call ‘ourselves’, to keep personal happiness as our great aim in life, and yet at the same time to be ‘good’. We are all trying to let our mind and heart go their own way – centered on money or pleasure or ambition – and hoping, in spite of this, to behave honestly and chastely and humbly. And that is exactly what Christ warned us you could not do. As He said, a thistle cannot produce figs. If I am a field that contains nothing but grass-seed, I cannot produce wheat. Cutting the grass may keep it short: but I shall still produce grass and no wheat. If I want to produce wheat, the change must go deeper than the surface. I must be ploughed up and re-sown. – Mere Christianity

What Lewis is describing here is what other authors have referred to as “the gospel of sin management.” The gospel of sin management says that following God is all about managing our sin, trying to control it, trying to get rid of what is bad and increase what is good. Now, I’m all for self-control, for less sin and more righteousness, but “the gospel of sin management” tries to get to this step first and by itself, as though we can simply will ourselves into moral perfection.

Lewis argues that we need to be made new creations. We need new identities. He likens it to being toy tin soldiers being made into real people. And, for that to happen, we need to have come in contact with the One truly real person: Jesus Christ.

His argument aligns perfectly with Ephesians 4:22-24 quoted above. In the passage Paul calls us to “put off the old self” and “put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.” This isn’t just code for “try to do less bad and more good” but live in accordance with the new identity we have in Christ. This new identity is closely associated a new mindset, a new way of thinking and looking at the world.

Only after this inner transformation are we called to the transformation of our actions, to sin management. Again quoting Lewis: “It may be hard for an egg to turn into a bird: it would be a jolly sight harder for it to learn to fly while remaining an egg. We are like eggs at present. And you cannot go on indefinitely being just an ordinary, decent egg. We must be hatched or go bad.”

But what if we’ve already been saved, we’re already receiving the new life of Christ, and we are still often on the losing end of temptation in our lives? How then does this apply? Perhaps we need to shift to the idea of surrender. We need to surrender “ourselves”, our own desires, our own happiness, to the will of God, and live instead in accordance with who he is making us to be. As James 4:7 says “Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.” Submission precedes resistance.

That is when self-control comes back into play – self-control as a fruit of the Spirit – as something that doesn’t arise from our own natures, but a supernatural gift from God, a natural outcome of living as new creations.

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What’s the role of the mind in overcoming sin?

How do we overcome sin, especially habitual sins which frequently defeat us? This is a challenge for many Christians and there are many different answers. I’m preparing for a sermon in a few weeks on Ephesians 4:27-24, verses which hold two major keys for victory over sin. One of those keys I want to talk about in this post: the importance of renewing our minds.

17 So I tell you this, and insist on it in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking. 18 They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts. 19 Having lost all sensitivity, they have given themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity, and they are full of greed.

20 That, however, is not the way of life you learned 21 when you heard about Christ and were taught in him in accordance with the truth that is in Jesus. 22 You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires;23 to be made new in the attitude of your minds; 24 and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness. (Ephesians 4:17-24)

The first thing that struck me about this passage is how important right thinking is to Paul. Paul is urging the believers in Ephesus to “live a life worthy of the calling they have received” (4:1). That means a radical change, a departure from one way of life and entrance into another, a change of identity.

He urges them to stop living like “the Gentiles.” Here he uses this word as a stand-in for those who are separated from the life of God (see 4:18). Their lives are characterized by (1) a spiritual condition that is hardened against God, (2) a mind that is futile, darkened, and ignorant, and (3) a lifestyle that is characterized by a lack of moral sensitivity. If there’s an ordering of events here it would likely be that the spiritual condition leads to a darkening of the mind, which leads to a lifestyle opposed to God, but both my experience and the text lead me to believe that these are more interrelated.

My interest here is the emphasis Paul puts on the second part, the role of the mind. Paul describes the fallenness of the “Gentile” thinking in three ways. First, their thinking is “futile”, that is, it doesn’t get them anywhere. There’s motion, but no progress. Having denied God, they have denied reality. In denying reality, their thoughts get no traction, they’re ultimately futile. Second, their understanding is darkened. It lacks light and illumination. Third, they’re “separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them.” Sometimes ignorance makes someone more forgivable (“they didn’t know what they were doing was wrong.”) But Paul isn’t describing ignorance in this way, but as something which makes them more guilty. They’re not ignorant because they haven’t had a chance to learn, but because they rejected the learning available to them.

Paul’s purpose isn’t to set up an “us-versus-them” polemic here, but to urge those Gentiles who had put their faith in Christ to “put off” this old way of thinking. It’s not “us-versus-them” but “who we were” vs “who God is making us to be.” How does this transformation from old to new happen? Well, if the problem is in the mind then the solution will also be in the mind. They were taught to be “made new in the attitude of their minds.” Having had their spiritual condition already transformed through salvation, they needed now to allow the transformation of their minds.

This renewal happens by understanding what they have been taught, namely, “the truth that is in Jesus.” This happens decisively when we hear and respond to the gospel, but Paul also has a continual process in mind. In other words, we need to be regularly taking in truth, remembering the truth that we have learned, and applying truth to our lives.

How does this apply to overcoming sin? We can, and should, deal with our sinful behaviors directly. However, sinful behavior is often fueled by lies. “I can’t stop sinning so why bother trying” is a lie. In the first place, those who are in Christ are no longer slaves to sin. In the second, the reality that we will never be perfect should never stop our pursuit of holiness. “This sin doesn’t hurt anyone” is a lie. All sin has destructive consequences and at the minimum it is harmful to you. Some lies are more subtle, even subconscious. No one would say that a woman is a mere object, but when men look at porn that’s how they’re treating them. It’s a denial of their full humanity. There are many other lies, or corruptions of the mind, which fuel sinful behavior. To deal with the root of the behavior, then, we need to deal with our minds – they need to be renewed.

We need to regularly meditate on the truth of the gospel. In the gospel we see the seriousness and destructiveness of sin alongside the grace of God, both to forgive and to enable obedience. The truth of the gospel undermines the lies we believe to justify our sin. We need to watch closely what goes into our minds. The old adage “garbage in, garbage out” still rings true. Just as regularly feeding on the truth works its way into behavior that is pleasing to God, regularly feeding on lies, or on those things which will make us spiritually callous or morally desensitized leads to behavior that is displeasing to God. Paul is wise when he calls us to think about “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable.” (Philippians 4:8)

Of course, we can know all the right answers and still be riddled with sin. We need an inner transformation that goes beyond mere cognition. We need a shift in the will. At the same time, we’re foolish to neglect the role that our minds and thoughts in our spiritual formation. Want to overcome sin? Start by allowing God to transform your mind.

“America at the Crossroads” (a review)

This past Sunday Pastor Robert Jeffress, a prominent and controversial Southern Baptist pastor invited conservative political commentator Sean Hannity to speak at his church on Sunday morning, paired with his own sermon titled “America at the Crossroads.” Instead of reading commentary about the event, I first listened to both the sermon and the interview with Sean Hannity. Here’s my own take on the message:

The Sunday event was controversial before Jeffress or Hannity said a word. The whole setup was problematic to begin with. Hannity is a political commentator and Jeffress invited him to a worship service. Not only that, but Hannity is a partisan. He isn’t exactly known for his even-handedness. Now, I am not one of those who believe that pastors should never talk about politics (as I discussed in this post), but (1) I view the worship service as a sacred event, specially set aside for worship (and allegiance) to God, and (2) it’s not hard to see how the Hannity interview would distract from both that worship and the task of gospel proclamation.

I’m not sure which came first in the service, the interview or the sermon, but I listened to the sermon first so I’ll start there.

First let me say that there was nothing particularly theologically objectionable in “America at the Crossroads.” (I struggle to admit it but) Jeffress and I are probably really close in our interpretation of Scripture. Where we disagree, as we’ll see, is in our interpretation in what is wrong with America and how to fix it.

A Coming Implosion

Jeffress starts the sermon with the story of the demolition of their old church building (to make room for the new one). It started with a series of explosions around the base of the building, followed by a pause, and then the sudden implosion. America, Jeffress said, had already experienced the explosions and we are now merely living in the pause before the coming implosion.

What are those explosions? Jeffress pointed to three Supreme Court decisions, the first which took prayer out of the schools, the second which legalized abortion, and the third which legalized gay marriage. The first was one of a series of events which took Christianity out of the public sphere, the second sanctioned murder, and the third undermines the most foundational of institutions, marriage.

What are we to do? Is there any hope for America? Jeffress argues that the duty of Christians now is to be salt in the world. How can we be salt? We need to get out of the salt shaker and influence the political process. We need to vote for representatives who will reverse the direction our nation has taken. In doing so, we will love our neighbor by ensuring that civil government does its role of restraining evil and, in doing so, avoids the coming implosion.

Jeffress ends the sermon by saying that it’s also important to help people come to faith, to turn America around one person at a time.

The problem and the solution – good vs evil

Except for the bit at the end, Jeffress identified both the problem and the solution in America to be political. We’re where we’re at because of a series of political decisions. Therefore, the solution is also political, the election of leaders who will reverse those decisions and get our country back on track.

This allows Jeffress to frame the 2016 election as good vs evil (I’m not exaggerating here, he specifically said that if there was one thing you should take out of the message it was that elections are a battle between good and evil.) On the one side you had Trump who opposed abortion. On the other side you had Clinton, who supported it in all its forms. Through this lens Trump is the force for good and Clinton the force for evil. The choice was clear.

Has Jeffress rightly identified the problem?

But what if the problems we face aren’t primarily political? I’ve become convinced that our problems are deeper than mere politics, but that they spring up from a long-secularizing culture. (For a recent account of this cultural decline see the first couple chapters of Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option). Furthermore, the church should have acted in a counter-cultural “salty” way but, instead, has itself faced the same secularizing cultural creep as the rest of the nation. We’ve become both a nation and a church of “Moralistic Therapeutic Deists”, embracing a shallow faith. We’ve wrapped up many cultural narratives in religious garb and called it Christianity. Our political condition is, in part, a function of that cultural decline and the failure of the church to remain faithful to the full gospel.

If the problems are more broadly cultural, both outside and inside the church, then the solution won’t be political, at least it won’t be primarily political. Like Jeffress, I agree that the solution will be for the church to be “salt” in the world, but I interpret that salt with a different emphasis. To be the salt the church will need to recapture the primacy of the gospel, it will need to reignited with a fire for evangelism, it will need to re-evaluate the way it has been influenced by cultural narratives that are opposed to the way of Christ.

My perspective on 2016 and beyond.

This was the primary lens by which I viewed the 2016 election. Through this lens I saw the election not between good and evil, but between evil in different forms. Trump had the right position on abortion, but it was still hard for me to view him as pro-life in any sort of broad sense. Instead, his words and actions demonstrated again and again that he was a fool, in the biblical sense, and thus unfit for authority, especially this highest position of authority. I saw broad evangelical support for Trump as a step backwards both for the culture and for the faithfulness of the church. By aligning ourselves with such a troubled man, I worried that we (as the church) were both damaging our witness and compromising our moral standards.

I don’t write this to take another shot at Trump, but to show how drastically different Jeffress and I understand both the problem and the solution. For Jeffress the political problem required a political solution, i.e., Trump. For me, both Trump and Clinton were symptoms of the cultural/church problem and the solution was to disentangle ourselves from the whole mess, either by opting out or selecting a different candidate altogether. This is, of course, my interpretation, and a minority one at that. My conscience is clear, but so are the consciences of others who, like Jeffress, saw the world differently (Or, who had the same concerns I did but still felt an obligation to oppose Clinton’s extreme abortion position by voting for Trump.) I’m not here to judge, but to lend my voice to the community as a whole.

Be the Salt.

Pastor Jeffress says we should be the salt of the earth. I agree. But that includes a lot more than political engagement. It means, first, obedience to Christ and with it, love for neighbor. It means inner transformation. It means gospel distinctiveness. It means participation within the local church. Political engagement plays a role, but we need to be wary of overplaying that one task. I’m not against talking about political issues from the pulpit. Christ is Lord over all and it’s the task of Christians to see how the Lordship of Christ affects all areas of life. But we can never let politics eclipse the rest. It must always be seen within and under the broader context of discipleship. My fear is that a sermon like “America at the Crossroads” will give the wrong impression, even if it’s not what Jeffress intends, that discipleship means fighting the liberals and retaking political power and that a successful church is one that mobilizes voters towards that end.

What’s wrong with the Hannity interview

If you want some good analysis on the interview, I recommend to you this article by Rod Dreher. Dreher says it better than I but basically Hannity says that he rejects the Roman Catholic view of the Papal Authority because he believes that the authority Jesus was describing to Peter came from God speaking directly into Peter’s heart. Hannity goes on to say that he sees this personal/private revelation as God speaking to our consciences. Hannity himself tries to listen to this voice, which he equates to the voice of the Holy Spirit, to guide his spiritual life. It might be possible to read this as nothing more than “the Holy Spirit convicts me of sin” but given that he tied it to Peter’s authority it sounds a lot more like he’s saying “my conscience is the basis for spiritual authority in my life.” That’s not the Christian teaching on the matter – Protestant or Catholic. The conscience matters, but it’s not authoritative. Of course, Dreher admits, Hannity’s is the default position of many Christians in our country. Jeffress leaves Hannity’s statement uncorrected.

Conclusion

I share many of the same concerns of Jeffress. I’m worried that our nation is in moral decline and that the church is unprepared for the future. But, I’m also worried that continuing to entangle ourselves in partisan politics is a step in the wrong direction. We need to engage politically as one way to love our neighbors, but we need to be cautious. We need to keep the main things the main things: worship of God, faithfulness to Christ, and proclamation of the gospel.

Book Review: The Benedict Option by Rod Dreher

The “benedict option” has been an influential idea in certain sectors of Christian culture for a while now, even before Rod Dreher made it into a book. So, despite my interest in how Christianity relates to the broader world and culture, it’s a little surprising that I only now got around to it.

For those unfamiliar, the basic concept behind The Benedict Option is that America culture is becoming less Christian. Additionally, some Christian beliefs, especially regarding marriage and sexuality, are becoming especially unpopular. The question for Dreher is this: How do we respond to this trend? How can Christians be faithful to Christ in an increasingly post-Christian country?

Dreher does not give a prescription for “getting back” to the old days when Christianity dominated the culture or the political landscape. He sees the election of Donald Trump, while possibly staying the tide of more formal animosity, as ultimately a symptom of bigger cultural problems. His answers are not political, at least not in the American political sense.

Instead, Dreher’s emphasis is on forming thick communities of faith which will be able to withstand the strong winds of secular culture. This means that the church will need to get back to a more faithful version of itself, to escape the hold of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, and be the church.

Dreher begins with a history lesson: Where are we and how did we get here? He paints a bleak picture of a culture increasingly post-Christian and a church increasingly influenced by secularism. The time to act is now, if we can have eyes to see and the will to act.

He then moves onto the solution, starting with the St. Benedict. Benedict is the hero of this story because, as civilization was crumbling around him, he formed a community of monks who continued both the preservation of the faith and the fruits of Western civilization. The monks, and monastic life, are featured prominently in this book. Our homes, Dreher says, can become miniature monasteries with all the practices therein: order, prayer, work, and asceticism, hospitality, and balance. The rest of the book is an expansion on this theme.

Three chapters stood out to me: “Education and Christian Formation”, “Eros and the New Christian Counterculture”, and “Man and the Machine.” Each chapter, for a certain audience, is bound to be provocative.

In “Education and Christian Formation” he argues Christians should enroll their kids in Christian schools, specifically Classical Christian Schools, or to homeschool their kids while participating with some kind of Classical Christian school partnership. He arrives at this conclusion, first, because he sees education as central to Christian formation and central to the formation of the communities he envisions. He looks to minority religious Jews in this regard. Second, he notes that right after parents, peers are the most influential group in a young person’s life. Add onto that the fact that many American schools are overtly secular and Dreher arrives at the following provocative conclusion: “The rationale [that we have to keep our kids in public schools to be a witness] begins to sound like a rationalization. It brings to mind a father who tosses his child into a whitewater river in hopes that she’ll save another drowning child” (157). So, why Classical Christian schools? Classical education approaches education from a different perspective. It focuses not on just adding a Bible class, but on integrating all disciplines of education under Christ himself (plus it has an emphasis on Western civilization, which Dreher is a fan of).

In “Eros and the New Christian Counterculture” Dreher talks about how Christian communities can respond to the sexual revolution. First, he says we shouldn’t compromise just to try to “keep” the younger generation in church. Those who are accepting the secular view of sex aren’t becoming part of liberal churches, they are leaving church altogether. Second, we need to affirm a positive and wholistic view of sexuality. Third, we need to support unmarried people. Fourth, we need to fight pornography with everything we have.

Finally, “Man and the Machine” addresses the Christian community’s response to technology. Dreher, of course, notes the negative uses of technology – such as rampant pornography among younger and younger teenagers. But he goes further and addresses the technological mindset, the mindset that judges everything by whether we can do something rather than whether we should do it. To that end he argues that technology is not morally neutral, but has the power to reinforce a scattered and impulsive life. How should we respond: Go on regular digital fasts, work with your hands, take the smartphones away from your kids.

Dreher concludes with two images of floods. In one, Christian communities are little arks, weathering the storm of a crumbling culture. In the other, the flood waters are redemptive, sweeping away the old so that when the waters recede new life can spring up. He concludes with this more positive image of the church, retaining its life and saltiness so that it can once again bring life to the world.

Review

Agree or disagree with some of Dreher’s points above, his book is worth a read and his arguments are worth considering. I agree that one of our primary strategies during this time is the formation of Christian communities, to refocus our attention and energies on faithfully being the church. I’m not sure I share as bleak a picture of the world as Dreher, but time will yet tell who is right.

I also think this book is worth balancing with another book which covers a similar set of topics: This is our Time by Trevin Wax. The thesis of Wax’s book is that we should get to know our cultures deepest desires and then show how those desires are fulfilled only in Christ. Take technology: We’re drawn to social media because we want to be known and liked. But social media only disappoints. We show ourselves, but only versions of ourselves. We are liked, but only superficially. But God knows us fully and loves us fully. Our desires – given expression in our use of technology – are only fulfilled in Christ. Wax, then, sees the same sorts of problems that Dreher does, though his book offers a more outward focused way of dealing with them.

That’s not to say these two books are mutually exclusive. Both have important things to say. There is a worthwhile balancing effect. Also, The Benedict Option is not insular. He does give a nod to the importance of hospitality and of welcoming others into the community. His emphasis, though, is primarily on preservation.

All in all, this is an important book. I hope you’ll read it and consider its arguments.
Book Recommendations
The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation

This Is Our Time: Everyday Myths in Light of the Gospel

Introduction

I posted last Saturday that I just finished the rough draft for a new book I’ve been working on. To give you more of a flavor, here’s my initial draft of the introduction (though, the more I read it, I think the first part is more like a preface, and thus will need some revision.)

I don’t have a title for this book yet and am open to suggestions. Maybe the introduction will give someone an idea. If you have a good idea for a title, please let me know.

Introduction

 

I dedicate this book to the students of Attic After School. I have the privilege of volunteering at this program for 7th – 12th graders once a week. The goal of the program is to provide a safe place for students to experience the love of Christ. Every day we hang out, play games, talk about life, and have what we call a “talk time.” During these talk times one of the leaders shares a brief message from the Bible. I am honored with being the speaker on a regular basis. Through the interaction with the students during these talk times (and I love the interaction) and through our normal conversations I’ve discovered that students who attend this program come from a wide range of religious and spiritual backgrounds. Some know a lot about Christianity, but many only a little bit. Or, their knowledge is based on misinformation or misunderstandings. I have realized that I can’t assume these students have the same background that I had. This is good for me. It helps me to focus my efforts not only on giving spiritual knowledge, but on making it clear and understandable to a very mixed audience.

This year for my “talk times”, I decided to simply walk through the basics of the Christian faith, one step at a time. This book mirrors that project. I have written this as a sort of handbook for those who are coming to the Christian faith for the first time, for those who are interested in rediscovering it, and for those who are new believers. My goal is to lay down a foundation of knowledge that can be built on later. Though I was thinking most of the Attic After School students, this is not only for them. Its application is for adults as well as young people. Christianity is relevant for all ages, and the simple truths of the Bible need to be returned to again and again, even by the most mature.

There are other books of this sort, the most famous of which is Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis. I highly recommend it. I would also commend to you Simply Christian by N.T. Wright and Basic Christianity by John Stott. This book has a similar aim – to present the basics of the Christian faith – but differs in some important ways, not least of which is the obvious fact that those books are far superior. I wouldn’t dare to declare that this book fills some hole where others lack. There is nothing unique, certainly nothing original, in this book. But instead of just suggesting those books above I have written this one. Why? As a pastoral effort, as an attempt to provide a resource to those whom I have the responsibility to teach and care for. My prayer is that it would also prove helpful to you, dear reader, whether I had you in mind or not. You can be the judge of that.

How this book fits together

The structure for this book was first conceived in yet another pastoral context, as I was preparing to lead a class for those interested in being baptized as believers. That class is structured into three sections: salvation, baptism, and church. In my Baptist tradition was see baptism as a symbol of salvation, and we see salvation as a pre-condition for baptism (If that sentence didn’t make sense to you, don’t worry, it should be the end of the book). We also see baptism as deeply connected to church membership.

The first week we talk about what it means to be saved. Do we even need to be saved? What do we need to be saved from? How can we be saved? What must we do? The second week we talk about baptism as a symbol for salvation. The third week we try to show how both connect to church life.

This book has a similar structure, except that we replace a discussion of baptism with a discussion of the Christian life (baptism is now addressed briefly in Part 3). In Part 1 we talk about salvation. We talk about the Big Story of the Bible, about where we stand before God, about how we can be made right with God, and how we can be rescued.

In Part 2 we talk about the Christian life. What does it mean to be a Christian? What does the Christian life look like? Does the Christian life constrain or free us? If it frees us, in what sense does it make us free?

In Part 3 we talk about the church. What is the church? What does it mean to be a part of a church? Is the church important? Here, if anywhere in the book, I am trying to offer a brief correction to the direction Christianity has taken in our culture. Our culture is individualistic and consumerist and, sadly, so is our approach to church. We see church primarily as one method among many to reach a sense of individual spiritual fulfillment. I hope to convince you that this is not a healthy way to view church. Instead, I hope that you will see that participation in church life is a natural and necessary outcome of salvation, and a core component to Christian living.

Because this book is so short I had to leave out a lot of material, including some some core truths. This book doesn’t address all the core topics, and some of the topics it does address it does so only in a very limited way. I see this book more as a place to jump off  from than as a place to land. Still, I hope that you will see it as a cohesive whole. If there’s one dominant theme in this book it is this: God is a rescuing God. He sent His Son to rescue you. You can receive that rescue through faith. This rescue includes your eternal salvation, freedom to live a life for God, and inclusion into the people of God.


 

Announcement: Proof readers and editors wanted!

Over the past month or so I’ve been working on a handbook for new believers, or those considering the basics of the Christian faith. As I was writing I was primarily thinking of the teenagers who are involved in our After School program. Many of them have very little knowledge of Christianity. Or, what they know about it is confused or distorted. I wrote this book for them.

To that end I made it short and simple. I tried to make very few assumptions about what these kids already know. I did my best to start at the very beginning, to lay out just the basics, to avoid religious language – or to define the language I used as I went.

The book has three sections. Part one: What does it mean to be saved? Part two: What does is the Christian life? Part three: What is the church? (Aside: There are a ton of much better books that talk about part 1 and part 2, but not many that I have found that really talk about part 3 at all. I’m hoping to rectify an overly individualistic view of Christianity a little in this book.)

15 minutes ago I finished the first rough draft. Over the next week I’m going to make some edits. After that, though, I want to run it past more people. I need more eyes on this book, or on portions of this book, to see what I might have missed, or what could be improved. (The book is 26 “word” pages long). If you would be interested in proofreading or editing this book or one of its parts please let me know. I don’t know the final form it will end up taking, but if you help me out I’ll give you a copy of whatever form it takes.

If you’re interested, please send me an email or a comment.

Thanks!

Book Review: The Vanishing American Adult by Ben Sasse

Book Recommendation

The Vanishing American Adult: Our Coming-of-Age Crisis–and How to Rebuild a Culture of Self-Reliance

Summary

I’ve been admiring Senator Ben Sasse for about a year now. He’s one of the few Senators who speaks with substance about broad principles. He’s consistently conservative, but isn’t very partisan. He doesn’t just buy the into the party line – and that’s earned him a number of enemies within his own party, but also a lot of respect in my eyes. It’s one of the reasons why I wanted to read this book.

The library I got this book from categorized it as “politics”, but it’s not a policy book (and he explains why in the postscript). It’s closer to a parenting book, actually, and all the chapters in Part 2 give practical suggestions to parents. If you want to classify it as a “political” book, you should define “politics” more broadly to mean “public life”, or maybe even “culture.” Sasse sees culture as upstream from policy and partisanship and it’s the broader context of culture and shared public life that Sasse addresses.

The Problem

Sasse is specifically concerned about the “vanishing American adult.” He’s concerned that we’re failing to teach our younger generations how to be grown-ups, that we’re consigning them to perpetual adolescence. Part 1 of his book gives a more detailed account of the problem and how we got here. Part 2 provides suggestions for specific remedies. For the purposes of this summary and review I’ll focus on Part 2.

“An Active Program” 

How do we remedy the problem. The Vanishing American Adult outlines six solutions. 1) Avoid age segregation. 2) Teach hard work. 3) Embrace production over consumption. 4) Travel. 5) Read good books. 6) Embrace America as an idea.

Avoid Age Segregation: We live in a highly age-segregated culture with precious few opportunities to learn from our elders. If we only interact with people our own age we get a truncated view of life. Most importantly, we miss out on learning about the most fundamental questions that comes to us at the end of life, but that we should ask sooner: What is a life well lived? What truly matters? How can I cope with the reality and immanence of my own death and the deaths of those I love? To that end, Sasse encourages providing young people opportunities to interact with and learn from people of all generations.

Teach Hard Work: Sasse believes that, as a result of our unprecedented national wealth, we’re becoming softer and more averse to hard work. Hard work builds character and a healthy sense of self-worth. His advise? Figure out how to develop a sold work ethic in your children.

Embrace Production over Consumption: Consumption (beyond the necessities, of course) doesn’t bring us happiness, even though the marketing world would have us believe it does. Production – and knowing that our work is meaningful – does. To that end, Sasse encourages us to produce more and consume less.

Travel: Sasse makes a distinction between travel and tourism. Tourism, while it has it’s place, is just a different form of consumption. Travel, on the other hand, is about gaining wisdom, experience, and a broader perspective of the world. Sasse is after adventure. He believes that good travel doesn’t necessarily have to be expensive – or even far away – so long as it embraces that attitude of exploration. He recalls several of his own trips as a young man.

These reminded me of my own 10-day road trip I undertook with a couple of classmates immediately after high school. We took a loop through Canada and then to the East Coast, sleeping in our Jeep Wrangler, or at a friend’s house, or on a park bench in Boston Commons when we didn’t get back to the parking garage on time. This is the kind of travel Sasse is talking about, and I agree that this trip was an important “coming of age” step for me.

Read good books: Amen.

Embrace America as an Idea: The American idea is that of self-rule as opposed to external rule. Before America, the dominant idea was that governments ruled over their subjects, conferring a few limited rights to its people. The American idea flipped that around. In America, the people would rule and the government’s job would be to protect our unalienable rights. This idea has proven successful and transformed the world. But, this idea only makes sense if the people are able to self-govern. Children, though, lack that capacity. This is why it’s so critical to avoid being trapped in perpetual adolescence. America works only if it’s citizens are adults, are self-reliant, are self-governing. Without a self-governing public, we will try to hold back the chaos by ceding more and more control to the government – the path to eventual tyranny.

(Exhibit A in this discussion is the alarming trend of young people seeing the First Amendment as a dangerous thing. This most fundamental of American principles is under attack on college campuses and elsewhere. Why? Because we’re afraid of hurting people’s feelings. We’ve lost the adult ability to argue about great ideas. We’ve adopted instead the childish path of shutting down discussion, much to our detriment. Just before writing this review I read an article about BLM protesters shutting down a speech from the ACLU about free speech. Ironic. And sad.)

Review

I read this book primarily as a citizen and a parent. I’m worried both about the direction of our country, and my own ability to raise adults. I recognized, at various points, my own failure to “toughen up” my kids. I need to recapture simple tasks, like making my kids do chores before they watch TV. I also read this as a pastor – how do we encourage multi-generational interaction in the church? How do move kids in our children and youth ministries toward spiritual adulthood? How do we avoid perceptual spiritual adolescence?

I recommend this book to, well, just about anybody, but especially those who are more politically inclined, or parents who are concerned about raising self-governing adults.