Two Ways to Study Worship With Me

Want to study about worship with me? OK, that’s a funny way to say it. But from time to time, people ask when and where I’ll be teaching in an academic context, since it is not what I primarily do. Occasionally I teach a seminar or a workshop at conference or university. Those events are listed here.

But, now, there are two exciting new academic modules that I’ll be teaching in the 2019-2020 school year. One is for Doctoral students (the basic requirement is a Master’s degree); the other is a Master’s degree course. One is in Denver; the other is in Durham (England).

Durham Universityfullsizeoutput_9948

Studying Contemporary Worship (Intensive module in the MA in Theology and Ministry)
Taught with Professor Pete Ward, this module introduces the emerging field of Contemporary Worship Studies. The module reflects the widespread influence of this style of worship in the Church worldwide and the need for more sustained and theologically informed ways of evaluating the influence of Contemporary Worship. Taught by Professor Pete Ward and me.

The module will aim to:

  • Introduce students to the field of Contemporary Worship Studies
  • Facilitate the development of theological forms of evaluation of contemporary forms of worship
  • Enable students to develop basic skills for qualitative research in the field of Contemporary Worship Studies.

This module will involve:

  • An overview of the development of Contemporary Worship
  • An account of current scholarship in the theological and empirical study of Contemporary Worship
  • Qualitative Research Methods
  • Contemporary Paradigms of Congregational Worship

Upon successful completion of the module students will have gained:

  • An overview of the development of contemporary worship
  • An understanding of theological paradigms to critically evaluate contemporary worship
  • The foundations for the Qualitative Empirical Study of worship.

Upon successful completion of the module students will be able to:

  • Analyse theological texts related to worship
  • Design and implement a small-scale research project
  • Critically evaluate different paradigms and practice in the field of worship
  • Reason theologically in relation to practice
  • Make links between theoretical frameworks and the practice of religious communities
  • Develop small scale research related to ministerial and ecclesial life.

In addition to some online work, students are required to attend the intensive module which will meet in Durham, England, February 3-5, 2020.

Learn more about the Module ‘Studying Contemporary Worship’.
Learn more about the MA in Theology and Ministry at Durham.
Learn more about St. John’s College and Cranmer Hall

Email Nick Moore to express interest or to learn more:


Theology and Practice of Worship: Personal and Corporate (D.Min. Module)

This class focuses on what it means to worship, both individually and as a group or congregation. This course draws from biblical theology, philosophy, and sociology to equip students to engage in robust theological reflection on personal and corporate worship practices. The student will learn to blend a prescriptive approach to worship practices with a descriptive analysis of practices in context. This will involve the whole biblical range of practices and postures, content and cultures, the senses and the spirit of personal and corporate worship. This class will prepare you to guide times of well-rounded worship for yourself, for a group you’re part of, or for your congregation.

This course contributes to Denver Seminary’s mission by helping students to develop a Biblical theology of worship, and to learn how to integrate sociological analysis with theological reflection of personal and corporate worship practices in context, all while cultivating personal worship practices.

Course objectives

  • To develop a broad, Biblical theology of worship;
  • To develop a paradigm for practical theology that integrates Biblical theology with philosophy and sociology;
  • To learn how to conduct small-scale qualitative empirical research on congregational worship practices in context, integrating theological reflection with sociological analysis in order to evaluate the cognitive, affective, and phenomenological dimensions of personal and congregational worship practices;
  • To engage with various devotional worship practices such as Psalm-praying, the Prayer of Examen, and contemporary worship music.

The class can be taken for credit toward a Doctor of Ministry degree or for personal enrichment. A limited number of auditors will be admitted.

Book list:



The class begins with the reading assignments in October, and culminates with a one-week intensive seminar on the Littleton (Denver) campus January 6-10, 2020.

Click HERE for more info about the course.
Learn more about Denver Seminary.

Using God’s Wildness Against Him: When Saying ‘Aslan is Not a Tame Lion’ Goes Wrong

One of the more brilliant things C. S. Lewis does in the Chronicles of Narnia series is to take a famous line from the first book he wrote in the series and show how it can be misused in the final book of the series. To take a proverb and parody it as a parable within the greater narrative is surely a bit of theological artistic genius.

The line I’m talking about is this: ‘He’s not a tame lion.’ It’s used of Aslan in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe to show that his goodness does not preclude a kind of wildness.

But in The Last Battle, when Aslan’s absence has been prolonged, the phrase begins to be misused. In the first chapter, Jewel the unicorn uses the phrase as a basis for suggesting that maybe the stars and their ominous warning are wrong about the present situation. Though Aslan never acts without the stars sending signs, maybe he is acting in a new way, breaking with the past. After all, Aslan made the stars, Jewel says. And he is not a tame lion.

A few chapters later, Shift— the ape who conned a donkey into acting like Aslan so that the ape could rule the land— rebukes Narnians who find the order of slavery as out of Aslan’s character. Here he tells them they don’t really know what freedom is, and that the bottom line is that they ought not question Aslan since, after all, he is not a tame lion.

Reading it to my son last night, both misuses of the ‘tame lion’ phrase struck me as rebuke to two tendencies in our own day— though I suspect there were versions of it in Lewis’s day as well.

The first suggests that God’s wildness is a grounds for justifying a break with God’s ways. God is ‘free’ and therefore does not have to act the way He has always acted. This is very near the argument used by “progressive Christians” when they want to move beyond the moral vision of the New Testament. “Oh, yes that’s what the Bible says about sexuality, but the Spirit blows where it pleases. God has moved on.” No doubt you’ve heard some version of this.

The second misuse of the phrase emphasizes God’s sovereignty to be so absolute that even our definitions will be different. Freedom is not what we think freedom is. Good is not what we think good is. Of course, there is some truth here, but the danger comes in absolutizing the ‘otherness’ of God to the effect of erasing any point of reference. Language itself becomes meaningless. God is beyond our control and therefore can act in ways that is out of character in our eyes. This resembles some versions of hyper-Calvinism I’ve heard, where God is so far removed from us that He may think cancer or some horrible thing is ‘good’ even when we don’t. God can do things that are out of character because we don’t really understand His character anyway.

Both are misapplications— and therefore abuses— of the notion of God’s God-ness. One stresses God’s freedom; the other God’s otherness. One allows God to break from His ways in the past; the other from God’s character as we know it. Both undermine the self-revelation of God. True: God cannot be fully known by humans, but if knowledge of God is not possible, then God’s attempt of revealing Himself is in vain. Surely the condescension of God— in revelation and incarnation— helps us actually know God. No, He is not ’tame’, but His wildness does not mean we cannot know Him through His ways. The Old Testament is particularly clear in showing that God reveals who He is by what He does (Hannah’s song in 1 Samuel 2 is but one example). And God’s wildness does not mean that we do not know the essence of His character. This why John could write with confidence that God is Love. This is why Paul could work out a coherent theology of grace to stitch old and new covenants together, and show how Jews and Gentiles belong to one another, yet still warn of the judgment that comes from rejecting this grace.

In short, God’s wildness cannot be used against Him. He is still good. And He has shown us what goodness looks like.

The Problem of Sin and the Power of the Cross

In our world, sin is seen as behaving badly, or breaking some arbitrary code of morality. But the Bible talks about sin in a different and much deeper way.

Sin in the Old Testament is portrayed in various ways. Psalm 51 alone uses several Hebrew words to describe it: failure, waywardness, rebellion, and evil. Sin is all of those things: it is a failure to live up to our creational vocation to reflect God’s wisdom and rule into to the world; it is a waywardness of life that drifts from the path of righteousness; it is a rebellion against God as King; it is a complicity in the evil of the world around us.

But the Old Testament gives us more than terms and concepts; it is rich with stories and symbols. So it is the key rituals that relate to sin which give us insight into the problem of sin. Yom Kippur was the ‘Day of Atonement’; it is prescribed in Leviticus 16. Passover is the great story of Israel’s rescue from Egypt; it’s story is told in Exodus 12. Through the enacted symbolism of both events, we come to see sin as a ‘stain’ that must be purified, a blame that must be removed, a power to be freed from, and a penalty to be saved from.

The stain of sin is sin in the goat sacrificed on Yom Kippur to purify the worshipper.

‘Then he shall kill the goat of the sin offering that is for the people and bring its blood inside the veil and do with its blood as he did with the blood of the bull, sprinkling it over the mercy seat and in front of the mercy seat. 16 Thus he shall make atonement for the Holy Place, because of the uncleannesses of the people of Israel and because of their transgressions, all their sins. And so he shall do for the tent of meeting, which dwells with them in the midst of their uncleannesses.’

Leviticus 16:15-16

This imagery is a picture of the stain of guilt that needs to be cleansed. The sacrificed goat is a picture of purification from the stain of guilt.

There is another goat the Yom Kippur scene, one which is kept alive. The priest lays hands on this goat, transferring the sin of the nation upon it, and then sends it away.

“And when he has made an end of atoning for the Holy Place and the tent of meeting and the altar, he shall present the live goat. 21 And Aaron shall lay both his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and all their transgressions, all their sins. And he shall yput them on the head of the goat and send it away into the wilderness by the hand of a man who is in readiness. 22 The goat shall bear all their iniquities on itself to a remote area, and ahe shall let the goat go free in the wilderness.”

Leviticus 16:20-22

This is a picture of blame. Even if the stain of guilt were removed, there is still the fact of culpability; we are to blame. The living goat represents the bearing of the blame.

Finally, there is the Passover Lamb. The blood of the lamb is placed on the doorposts so that the people of God may be saved from Death. Death is the judgment upon Sin, a judgment that fell upon Egypt that fateful night. In being saved from Death, Israel was also rescued from slavery to Egypt. The blood of the lamb means a rescue from the powerofsin which leads to the penalty of death.

‘Then Moses called all the elders of Israel and said to them, “Go and select lambs for yourselves according to your clans, and kill the Passover lamb. 22 Take a bunch of hyssop and dip it in the blood that is in the basin, and touch the lintel and the two doorposts with the blood that is in the basin. None of you shall go out of the door of his house until the morning. 23 For the Lord will pass through to strike the Egyptians, and when he sees the blood on the lintel and on the two doorposts, the Lord will pass over the door and jwill not allow the destroyer to enter your houses to strike you.” ‘

Exodus 12:21-23

The bull represents the purification from the stain of guilt; the goat represents the removal of the blame. The lamb represents the rescue from the power of Sin and penalty of Death.

The New Testament picks up on each of these themes as it tries to help us understand the power of the cross. Paul seems to draw on Passover imagery more than that of the Day of Atonement. In Romans, especially, we see Sin as a power we were enslaved to, which leads to Death as a consequence of this enslavement. Jesus is the one who sets us free from this slavery.

‘When you were slaves of sin, you were free from the control of righteousness. 21 What consequences did you get from doing things that you are now ashamed of? The outcome of those things is death. 22 But now that you have been set free from sin and become slaves to God, you have the consequence of a holy life, and the outcome is eternal life.’

Romans 6:20-22, CEB

In Hebrews and in the Johannine epistles, Jesus is seen as the one who removes the stain of guilt from us, cleansing us fully.

‘He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, 4 having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.’

Hebrews 1:3-4

‘But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.’

1 John 1:7

‘He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.’

1 John 2:2

And in both Paul’s and Peter’s writings, Jesus bears the blame of our own behavior in His body, thus expiating it from us.

‘For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh…’

Romans 8:3

‘He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed.’

1 Peter 2:24

To put it another way, the problem of sin is that it is a contagion and a captivity, which involves our complicity.

As a stain, sin is like a contagion that must be cleansed— as a virus must be eradicated from the body.

As blame, sin involves our complicity and thus blame must be borne.

As a power which leads to the penalty of death, sin is a captivity from which we must be freed.

In His death on the cross, Jesus purifies us from the stain of guilt, removes from us and bears in Himself the blame, and frees us from the power of Sin and Death.

Good Friday, indeed.

This post was inspired by reading Chapter 4 in Fleming Rutledge’s very excellent book, The CrucifixionThough Rutledge deals primarily with Sin as a power we were under, it was the way she wove in our complicity in addition to our captivity (terms that come from a quote in her chapter) that provoked my reflection on the nature of the problem of sin. It prompted a recollection of Goldingay’s work on the ‘stain’ of sin in Old Testament texts. My attempt to hold all three concepts together caused my to reflect on whether the sacrifices related to Yom Kippur and Passover might actually address each of these aspects of the problem of sin. Thus what you have read is a musing aloud, and not a final word by any means. I pray it provokes just the sort of prayerful reflection in you.

On “Practical Theology” and My Experience at Durham


Durham Cathedral, built in 1093.

img_4127I can’t believe it’s over.

When I first began, I was as giddy as a schoolboy, albeit a 35-year old schoolboy, back in September of 2013. (Shout out to my friend Stephen Proctor, renown to his friends as a world-adventurer, who cashed in air miles just to accompany me on the trip. We even ate pizza late at night in the library!)


A totally staged picture in the St. John’s College library, taken by Proctor.

Over the past four and a half years, I’ve been stretched, challenged, and encouraged. There were times I thought I’d never make it, and plenty of moments where I felt I didn’t belong. I’m not a real academic, I would think over and over again. But I kept going, kept reading, kept note-taking, kept researching and transcribing interviews and analyzing data and writing. Nearly every night, I’d spend an hour and half doing something to ‘move the ball down the field’.

I chose Durham because my wife, Holly, urged me to shoot for the moon, to chase a dream. I knew of its reputation, because my sister spent time there as a post-doctoral researcher, and Holly and I visited them there years ago. Durham’s unique approach to practical theology, and the DThM’s high research rigor paired and with low residency requirements caught my attention as I explored it online. At the time, I didn’t even know that Durham’s Department of Theology and Religion is actually ranked number three in the world, behind only Harvard and Oxford.

But what really made the past few years so rich and rewarding were the people. From the lecturers I met in my first week-long residency to the faculty at St. Johns and professors in the Department, these people are not only brilliant and leading voices in their field, they are kind and big-hearted. I honestly felt ‘pastor-ed’ through the process by my supervisors.


Prof. David Wilkinson (top left), Dr. Mathew Guest (bottom right)– both of whom were my supervisors– and Prof. Pete Ward (bottom left), who ended was my internal examiner.

But it’s not just the faculty and staff; it’s the friendships along the way. The Doctorate of Theology and Ministry (DThM) is a collaboration between the Department of Theology and Religion and Cranmer Hall (which is where ordinands for the Church of England are trained). Because of this, there is a kind of cohort of scholars going through the program together. And on top of that, almost everyone in it is a practitioner-scholar, or even a pastor-theologian. The combination of a love for the church and a love for theology made forming friendships easy. The one-week residency periods were a great time to learn from a visiting scholar, hear other students present updates on their research, interact with others about our own research, pray together, and laugh it up over food and music. Their friendship has been one of the great unexpected gifts along this journey and a source of deep joy. I trust the Lord to bless their labors in the days ahead.


A few of the folks remaining from the group that began in September, 2013.

Now…A Few Words about ‘Practical Theology’:

Practical theology, especially in American contexts, is often seen as applied theology. Practical theology is viewed as the branches that emerge from the trunk of historical theology and the root system of philosophical theology. As the discipline has developed, however, it can more broadly be understood as a way of relating faith or doctrine with practice. Besides the ‘applied’ approach, there is also a ‘critical correlation’ model, where theology is often paired with the social sciences, with social anthropology shedding light on human experience or behavior and theology reflecting on how this experience or behavior relates to God. There can also be a threefold engagement between ‘theological disciplines, the social sciences, and the actual situation’. There is also a ‘praxis’ model, which is primarily concerned with actions and outcomes that aim to be transformative. The praxis model begins with a concrete situation but assumes that no activity is value-free and thus critiques every aspect, including the researcher. This analysis is then filtered through a theological imperative in order to develop a new praxis. [See Paul Ballard and John Pritchard’s excellent Practical Theology in Action: Christian Thinking in the Service of Church and Society for more on all this, particularly pages 46-66.]

There’s an even deeper approach which wants practice to be taken seriously on its own. British theologian Elaine Graham argues that practical theology in a postmodern context means that theology should function less like disembodied concepts and more like a faith which is enfleshed in practices and community. Where practical theology once moved from theory to practice, Graham’s goal is to move from practice to theory. Now, we cannot go fully where Graham may want us to go, because this would mean no longer privileging formal theologies like those built from Biblical interpretation or sourced from historical tradition.

But the point in saying all this is to show how theological reflection has begun to take seriously the lived expressions of theology from ordinary Christians. Every choice, action, practice, habit, and more is a form of theology. And not only should those words and practices be evaluated by more formal modes of theology like Biblical theology and historical theology, but the embedded and embodied theology of daily lives should be allowed to interrogate the assumptions which we make how to apply formal or normative theologies. Taking each Christian’s life and experience with a kind of holy seriousness means allowing lived ordinary theology to spur fresh questions that may drive us back to the text and the tradition.

One small example of this from my own research is that if I only relied on formal theologies of hope, I would be convinced that worship songs which did not orient the worshipper toward the future and specifically toward a future of bodily resurrection and new creation would be no good at producing hope. Yet I discovered that the texts of songs which worshippers and worship leaders said brought them hope were about the present tense, the proximate space, and the personal perspective…AND I found through fieldwork with two different local churches that the experience of hope was consistent, resilient, and available through variant means. This caused me to look deeper into the nature of hope and other aspects of Biblical and historical theology. One of the resulting proposals was that if, based on a cognitive model of hope, hope is the result of agency and pathway– the sense that one can do it and knows how– then worship, which is the transfer of agency upward to God, produces hope simply by singing about who God is, and without singing about what God will do one day. That’s just one small example, but I think you get the picture of how ‘practical theology’– relating theory and practice– is not a matter of simply working out how to ‘apply’ abstract concepts to concrete situations.

Finally, a Few Common Questions about the Program:

  1. What is a DThM comparable to in the American system? It is most like a ThD. Having spent some time with ThD students at a U.S. school, the kind of integrated approach that is theologically oriented and practice driven is very much like the DThM. The folks at Durham want to be clear about how the DThM is different from an American DMin. I think this is mostly because of the research requirements of the DThM— it has to make an original contribution to the field, and be 70,000 words in length (though I know some U.S. DMin. programs have comparable requirements). Some British Universities call their version of the DThM a DPT, Doctorate of Practical Theology. The main reason Durham can’t call the DThM a PhD is that the first year involves a ‘taught component’, where you would learn the British approach— and specifically the Durham approach— to practical theology and inter-disciplinary research.
  2. How long does it take? They say it takes six years, part-time. But, I think, with a clear research focus, great supervisors, and a little bit of personal motivation, one could submit after four (I did, and I’m not a “real academic”).
  3. How much does it cost?The exchange rate between the British pound and US dollar fluctuates, but generally, it’s been about $12,000 a year.
  4. How many visits do you make to Durham? There are two one-week residency periods a year, one in January and one in September.

You can learn more HERE

‘How to Think’: A Summary

The goal of the book is to help us learn to interrogate our instincts and intuitions by examining the social, emotional, linguistic, and (necessarily) reductionistic way our intuitive thinking works.

Takeaway: How we are incentivized not to think.

Using psychologist Daniel Kahneman’s terms from Thinking, Fast and Slow, Jacobs outlines two ‘systems’ of thinking: ‘System 1’ is ‘intuitive thinking, the fast kind (p. 16). ‘System 2’ is ‘conscious reflection’, the slow kind of thinking (p. 16). ‘We go through life basically running System 1; System 2 kicks in only when we perceive a problem, an inconsistency, an anomaly that needs to be addressed’ (pp. 16-17). Psychologist Jonathan Haidt compares ‘intuitive thinking’ to an elephant, and ‘conscious decision-making’ to a ‘rider’; ‘intuitive thinking is immensely powerful and has a mind of its own, but can be gently steered— by a rider who is truly skillful and understands the elephant’s inclinations’ (p. 17). The aim of the book is to help us understand the way ‘System 1’ works, the inclinations of our intuitive thinking, so that we can employ System 2 properly to evaluate it.

Why we don’t want to think (exact words from p. 17):

  • Thinking troubles us
  • Thinking tires us
  • Thinking can force us out of familiar, comforting habits
  • Thinking can complicate our lives
  • Thinking can set us at odds, or at least complicate our relationships, with those qw admire or love or follow
  • Thinking is slow

Marilyn Robinson, writing on why Puritans are almost always referenced in a negative light, suggests that we have a ‘collective eagerness to disparage without knowledge or information’ ‘when the reward is the pleasure of sharing an attitude one knows is socially approved’ (pp. 20-21).

T. S. Elliot wrote that ‘…”when we do not know, or when we do not know enough, we tend always to substitute emotions for thoughts” ’ (p. 22).

‘The person who wants to think will have to practice patience and master fear’ (p. 23).

Chapter 1: Beginning to Think
Takeaway: How thinking is social and emotional, not just analytical.
Thinking is necessarily social.
Thinking is not simply analytical.
Thinking is emotional.
‘…one must have a certain kind of character: one must be a certain kind of person, a person who has both the ability and the inclination to take the products of analysis and re-assemble them into a positive account, a structure not just of thought but also of feelings that, when joined to thought, can produce meaningful action’ (p. 43).

‘…when your feelings are properly cultivated, when that part of your life is strong and healthy, then your responses to the world will be adequate to what the world is really life’ (p. 44).

Chapter 2: Attractions
Takeaway: How the desire to belong makes us lazy or evil.
Haidt argues that ‘moral intuitions’ bind and blind. ‘ “People bind themselves into political teams that share moral narratives. Once they accept a particular narrative, they become blind to alternative moral worlds.” “Moral matrices bind people together and blind them to the coherence, or even existence, of other matrices” ‘ (p. 55).

C. S. Lewis’ ‘Inner Ring’ is a helpful way of describing how the terror of being excluded from a desired group makes a person ‘ “who is not yet very bad…do very bad things” ‘(p. 56).

Friendships are different than an ‘Inner Ring’ because they are not formed for the purpose of being exclusive; the exclusion is a by-product. They do not view their bond as making them superior.

Friendships matter, especially in formative seasons.

‘The genuine community is open to thinking and questioning…’ (p. 59).

‘The only remedy for the dangers of false belonging is the true belonging to, true membership in, a fellowship of people who are not so much like-minded as like-hearted’ (p. 62).

Chapter 3: Repulsions
Takeaway: How the will to survive leads to the hatred of others and closes our minds. 

Sometimes we are pushed to a way of thinking because of a repulsion to a particular group. The ‘desire to punish the outgrip is significant stronger’ than ‘the desire support the in-group’ (p. 73).

Avoid what C. S. Lewis calls ‘Bulverism’: ‘ “Assume that your opponent is wrong, and then explain his error, and the world will be at your feet. Attempt to prove he is wrong or (worse still) try to find out whether he is wrong or right, and the national dynamism of our age will thrust you to the wall” ‘ (p. 78).

The cure is to see a person not as an ‘other’ (who must be wrong), but as a ‘neighbor’ (p. 83).

The answer is not to eliminate attractions and repulsions and to be ‘purely rational’. Antonio Damasio argues in Descartes’ Error that ‘when people have limited or nonexistent emotional responses to situations, whether through injury or congenital defect, their decision-making is seriously compromised’ (p. 84).

Biases ‘reduce the decision-making load on our conscious brains’ (p. 86).

Chapter 4: The Money of Fools
Takeaway: How the power of words (keywords, metaphors, and myths) keeps us from seeing different worlds.

Don’t let words carry too heavy of a load. They can provide helpful shortcuts, but be aware of the work you’re asking them to do.

Use your opponent’s own words instead of restating it in “other words”.

Jacobs highlights two metaphors from Robin Sloan to help with this. The first is ‘method acting’, where you realize that ‘in different circumstances you could be that person’ (p. 111). The other metaphor is that of ‘dual booting’, where a computer can run two different operating systems. Jacobs writes, ‘Something similar happens when you try out someone else’s vocabulary: you experience the world from within that mode of describing it, with a new set of “terministic screens”, and some things you’re used to seeing disappear from view while new and different ones suddenly become visible’ (p. 112).

Chapter 5: The Age of Lumping
Takeaway: How taxonomies prevent information overload and create solidarity, but can lead to oppression if we don’t remember that taxonomies are provisional and if we fail to see the individual.

Taxonomies– the sorting of things into categories– is part of ordering the world. But the creation of social taxonomies is ‘a form of myth making’, so ‘we absolutely must remember what those taxonomies are: temporary, provisional intellectual structures whose relevant will not always be what it is, or seems to be, today’ (p. 119).

We must also practice ‘splitting’— the ‘disciplined, principled preference for rejecting categories whenever we discern them at work’ (p. 121). Be careful when you are tempted to explain something in someone as being because they are a member of a particular group and not because that is who they are as an individual.

Chapter 6: Open and Shut
Takeaway: How keeping an open mind is not possible, but closing it is dangerous. 

One cannot have a perpetually open mind. The object of opening one’s mind is not simply to have it open, but rather, as Chesterton noted, it is like ‘ “the opening of the mouth” ‘— the object is ‘ “to shut it again on something solid” ‘ (p. 126).

The goal is to be neither indifferent nor indecisive, but to have ‘the mental flexibility and honesty to adjust our views when the facts change’ (p. 127).

One of the biggest obstacles to being open to alternative views and narratives is the ‘sunk cost’ bias. ‘The more people have invested in a particular project, the more reluctant they are to abandon it, no matter how strong the evidence indicating that it’s a lost cause’ (p. 129). This eventually leads to doubling down, what scholars call ‘ “escalation of commitment” ‘ in the face of sunk costs (p. 129).

A fanatic is someone who avoids ‘considering any alternative to their preferred views’; ‘no matter happens, it proves [their] point’ (p. 136).

Look for signs of this in your group of friends. One giveaway that they are an unhealthy group (perhaps an ‘Inner Ring’) is if they have closed attitudes toward ‘ideas from the outgroup’ (p.138).

Chapter 7: A Person, Thinking
Learn fluency in another ‘dialect’. Imagine yourself in a different set of plausibility structures to see that your views are not necessarily inevitable.

Nevertheless, one cannot thrive in a constant state of evaluating the ‘truth-condusiveness of your social world’. Instead, follow the advice of W. H. Auden: ‘ “The same rules apply to self-examination as apply to auricular confession: Be brief, be blunt be gone.” ‘

The Thinking Person’s Checklist (pp. 155-156):

  1. When faced with provocation to respond to what someone has said, give it five minutes…
  2. Value learning over debating…
  3. …avoid the people who fan the flames.
  4. Remember that you don’t have to respond to what everyone else is responding to in order to signal your future and right-mindedness.
  5. If you do have to respond to what everyone else is responding to in order to signal your virtue and right-mindedness, or else lose your status in your community, then you should realize that it’s not a community but rather an Inner Ring.
  6. Gravitate…toward people who seem to value genuine community and can handle disagreement with equanimity.
  7. Seek out the best and fairest-minded of people whose views you disagree with…
  8. Patiently, and as honestly as you can, assess your repugnances.
  9. Sometimes the ‘ick factor’ is telling; sometime’s it’s a distraction from what matters.
  10. Beware of metaphors and myths that do too much heavy cognitive lifting…
  11. Try to describe others’ positions in the language that they use…
  12. Be brave.

Seven Books I Read and Loved in 2017

I feel like I read a lot of books this year. But it would be more accurate to say that I read parts of a lot of books this year. Graduate and post-graduate education have ruined me as a reader. I have learned, among other things, how to read the first few chapters and the last few chapters, study the table of contents, and track the argument of the book without reading all of it. This works best with academic books, but it hardly passes for deep, immersive reading. But research reading is raven-like, scavenging whole books for the tastiest morsels, the bits most relevant to one’s current appetites and needs.

So. There weren’t too many books I read cover to cover in 2017. There were several sections of several books– and a fair quantity of journal articles too– which I really enjoyed and found immensely helpful as a pastor and as a scholar. But I’m not sure I could say, ‘You should read this!’ about all of them…not to mention the lack of integrity in doing so since I didn’t finished reading them myself! But, as I scanned my stack on my night stand and bedroom bookshelf, there were seven books that I not only read completely, but also enjoyed thoroughly, in 2017. Here they are, in the order I read them.

1. “Destroyer of the Gods”

I love books on the early Christian centuries, the period before Constantine, because of the insight it gives us into how Christians learned to flourish and bear witness to Christ from the margins of society and culture. Though this isn’t full of new insights (there are some notable sections) or written in riveting prose (it’s written by a historian!), it covers some of the key features of early Christian communities, with plenty of wisdom to offer our age.

2. “The Day the Revolution Began”

Though not quite as revolutionary as some might have liked— Wright defends a view of the atonement that would fit broadly within the ‘substitutionary’ views— it is still Wright’s longest and fullest engagement (in popular form) with the meaning of the cross. He blends his work from Jesus and the Victory of God with his work on Paul (his New Interpreter’s Romans commentary among other works), to sketch a multifaceted view of the atonement— one which works somewhat like a stained glass window, holding otherwise disparate pieces together in the right light.

Readers who are new to Wright will appreciate his strong connections to Passover theology and practice as a hermeneutical key in understanding the crucifixion. It provides a much more compelling picture, too, of sin, refusing to allow the Christian to say that humans broke rules so God had to do something about it. The result of this wider-angled lens on the cross is that the very core of God’s original vocation for humans becomes clear.

3. “A Walk in the Woods”

This was pure fun. Bryson is at his comedic best, especially in the early chapters. As the book goes on, the story starts to lose steam, but he held my attention with fascinating historical vignettes and a few beautiful reflections on the treasures of nature in a rapidly urbanizing world. You’ll learn a lot, and the best part is it won’t feel like it.

4. “The Challenge of Jesus”

This is vintage Tom Wright. It was fun to see his early attempts to take his work on the historical Jesus and translate it for non-academics. I think it is crucial, however, to remember that though Wright is constructing an approach to the divinity of Jesus and the historicity of his resurrection that may seem circuitous and cumbersome to evangelicals, he is doing so in response to the skeptic/atheist/agnostic historian. It forms a bridge to their world (and especially the academic quarters of that world), and it is a bridge not easily torn down.

5. “A Theology in Outline: Can These Bones Live?”

I had never read Robert Jenson before. But as the tributes and eulogies flowed in this the year of his passing, I felt compelled to start. This was a fabulous recommendation from good friends. It’s more or less the transcript of his lectures to a group of undergrads on “basic Christian theology”. But in Jenson’s artful hands, it is so much more than basic; it is narrative, it is comprehensive, and it is captivating. Like Wright, Jenson knows his (initial) audience may be mostly liberal (read: not Creedal per se), yet presents confessional articles of Christianity in clear and elegant prose. I see what all the fuss is about now.

6. “Our Secular Age”

If you’re like me, you’ve never read Charles Taylor’s tome A Secular Age, but you’ve read other works on its importance. I read Jamie Smith’s How (Not) to be Secular a few years ago, and this is a worthy companion. It’s less of a summary or re-articulation of Taylor (as Smith’s book is), and more of a “so what?” pastoral follow-up. Each chapter contains contributions from various pastors/thinkers/writers on the implications for ministry practitioners in this new secular age. It’s very readable and contains specific points of reflection for our American context. I wish every pastor would read it and take it seriously. In fact, I’ll go so far as to say, if you only picked one from my list to read in 2018, let this be it.

7. “Practical Theology”

This one is mostly for seminarians, methinks. But it is what evangelical seminaries need in order to overhaul the current approach to “practical theology”. I know: that’s a bold and perhaps brash statement. In my very limited experience, so much of what passes off as practical theology is nothing more than applied theology— preaching, pastoral care, and the like. Meanwhile, the tools and trade secrets of anthropology and sociology are quarantined to “cultural studies” and maybe a few “missiology” programs. But the (dominant) British model of practical theology places theory and practice in a dialogical relationship, counting both as theological. The goal is to parse the embodied and embedded theology of practice (along with its communities, culture, and contexts) and to allow it to critique and shape historical, biblical, and systemictheology— instead of only allowing the influence to flow in the other direction. To be sure, for some this is a path to abandoning orthodoxy. But in Ward’s work, the evangelical reader will find a guide she can trust amidst the myriad of models and methods. For pastors who have completed seminary education, there is so much in here that will help you utilize old tools you learned (along with some new ones) in fresh contexts. After all, we often find ourselves doing practical theology on the fly; we may as well learn how to do it better on purpose.

BONUS: “The Moral Vision of the New Testament”

 This is a ‘bonus’ because I didn’t read this one cover to cover. But, I think if one were to read the early chapters in which Hays lays out his foundation and hermeneutical methodology and then to skip to the topics which interest the reader (as I did), it works quite well. It was immensely helpful to me to watch Hays carefully work through a consistent rationale and arrive at conclusions to ethical questions in ways which honor the authority of Scripture and take seriously the particulars of our context.

Seek First to Understand: Can Public Discourse Be Saved?

We don’t understand each other.

And I’m not sure how hard we’re trying.

This is not a post about athletes or anthems, flags or protests. *Take a deep breath.* This is about how we talk— or more accurately— how we listen to one another.

Years ago, Stephen Covey wrote in his ‘Seven Habits of Highly Effective People’, we should ‘seek first to understand, and then to be understood’. So in the effort to aid our understanding of one another, I’d like to offer some thoughts on how controversial and heated topics can become a pathway into empathy, and lead to better public discourse. I want to reflect for a moment on emotions, symbols, and language.

I. Emotions.
We often think emotions are the problem. “Don’t be so emotional,” we say. “Just face the facts and forget your feelings.” We think this is how to “grow up”, as if the coldly logical Dr. Spock were the epitome of maturity.

But emotions are not flaws. They are part of the glory of being made in the image of God. The problem is not that we are “emotional”; the problem is that we do not know how to pay attention to our emotions.

Emotions, as Bob Roberts from Baylor has argued, are a mode of perception. They are a way of seeing the world based on what we care about. Or as my friend Adam Pelsar who teaches at the Air Force Academy says, emotions are the “eyes of our heart”.

When you’re angry, it’s because something that you care about is being obstructed. When you’re afraid, it’s because something you care about is being threatened. When you’re sad, it’s because something you care about has been lost.

Two people could have very different reactions to a rainy day. One could be sad, the other could be relieved. Rather than arguing by trying to convince each other that they should not feel what they feel, they could learn about the other by asking about what their emotion is saying. Perhaps the one who is sad about rain was hoping to go on a hike with their friend. Maybe the one who is relieved lived through a forest fire and was hoping for more moisture. You see, our emotions can be a way into understanding each other if only we’d stop being shocked or offended when someone responds to a situation with a different emotion than the one we’re feeling.

What if when we saw someone get emotional about something, or read an outburst on Facebook, we don’t respond with equal intensity to counter them? What if we learn to ask instead, “Tell me what are you most concerned about here?” “Help me understand why is this so important to you?”

Emotions can be a gateway into intimacy. If we learn to be attentive to our emotions, they can help us learn about ourselves. And better yet: they can help us gain empathy for each other.

II. Symbols.
Consider how symbols work. A symbol is not a code. A code has only one referent; a symbol has many. So what the flag means to one is not what it means to another. What the symbolic act of kneeling means for one is not what it means to another. That’s just how symbols work. And frankly, it’s what gives symbols their power. They are incredibly malleable and portable. They can easily be imported into very different contexts.

But this means that we cannot evaluate another’s symbolic act solely based on what that act symbolizes to us; we have to ask what it symbolized to them. When sociologists debate the meaning of ritualized acts, the focus is often on who determines the meaning. Is the meaning of an act pre-encoded in, or does it depend on the performer? Or, more confusing yet, does the meaning of a ritual depend on the impressions of the viewer? No matter how post-modern our perspective, the general sense is that the performer of a ritual has the most say about what the act means.

So if you want to know what the flag means to people who stand and salute, ask them what meaning they are assigning to their act of standing. And if you want to know what the act of kneeling in the anthem means to those who kneel, ask them. I know people in our congregation who have different perspectives on this. I said in a recent sermon that those who have sacrificed and served and suffered loss like the men and women in our military have will have a deeper understanding of allegiance and of the flag than those who haven’t. I also said in a different sermon that many of us have no way of comprehending the depth of the impact of racism, particularly toward African-Americans, in our country– from the slave trade to segregation, from redline laws and institutionalized bias.  I am learning to listen and to give voice to the people in our congregation who identify with each of these perspectives. Both groups have something profound that they’re trying to communicate. Are we listening?

Speaking of listening…

III. Language.
Stanley Hauerwas, the great theologian/ethicist, said that we can only act in the world that we see, and that we shape the world we see by the words we say. So, if you call a fetus a ‘pregnancy’, you would be more open to ‘terminating’ it. But if you call it a baby in the womb, you would never think of taking a life. Words matter.

Words in our public discourse matter not just because they have the power to wound or to heal— though, please God, help us pay more attention to that too! Words matter because they show us how we are seeing the world. They lead to how we act in the world.

What if we listened— really listened— to each other’s words? What if when someone says that they experience systemic racial injustice, we take the time to imagine the world that they see? What if when someone says they feel disrespected by an athlete who kneels, that their service and sacrifice has been trivialized, we listen to those words? Injustice. Sacrifice. Disrespect. Words matter.

Words can show us one another’s worlds. They can help us enter each other’s stories, feel each other’s pain.

But words can only do this if we listen. And if we allow our listening to provoke a holy curiosity.

Tell me, what is it like to fear being pulled over when you’ve done nothing wrong?

Tell me, what is it like to lose a friend in battle and to witness the flag being folded and presented to their grieving widow at his grave?

Let the power of words help us enter each other’s worlds.

Friends, the world is not yet aflame with strife. May God grant us the grace to use emotions, symbols, and language as a way to listen with more empathy that we might gain more understanding. Who can say, but we just might save public discourse yet.