Having Friends Again

The cause of our increasingly polarized society is not primarily due to political conflict but to loneliness. That is the surprising conclusion of four books from four different authors I mentioned in my last post.

Because more and more of us in society feel isolated and disconnected, we are drawn to twisted forms of community to fill the void. These tribes are bound together by a common enemy rather than by the common good.

What is the solution for loneliness? As there is no one single cause, there is no one silver bullet that will solve this. Here’s a small sampling.

Limit time on devices. Every hour in front of a screen is an hour we are not spending with other people. We don’t have to go cold turkey. We can reduce the number of social media apps we engage with from five to two. We can cut the time we follow the news in half. Instead of using our phones to help us relax before sleeping, we could read a novel. Andy Crouch’s The Tech-Wise Family has all kinds of great ideas—as well as just a lot of wisdom for life.

Reengage with lifelong friends. Admittedly it can be hard to make new friends. An easier but still very fruitful path might be to renew connections with old friends near and far. In recent years I’ve deliberately increased the emails to, calls and zooms with, and visits to several longstanding friends. Some I’ve had spotty contact with over the years, and some I hadn’t seen in decades. But I’ve so enjoyed the results of more regular connection with all of them.

Join a group. I’ve always enjoyed singing, so joining a choral group is an obvious option for me. Community theater groups and bowling leagues usually welcome newcomers. Volunteering offers the satisfaction of giving back to your community while enjoying new social connections. Just Google “volunteering” and the name of your town and you are bound to find opportunities at hospitals, forest preserves, food pantries, park districts, tutoring, homeless shelters, or humane societies. Or ask a neighbor!

Walk the neighborhood. Speaking of asking a neighbor, Bilbro says in his book Reading the Times that one of the simplest ways to combat our isolation (and get a bit of exercise) is to go for a walk (pp. 165-69). When we walk out our front door, rather than drive, we have the opportunity to chat with a neighbor walking her dog or someone weeding his garden or kids playing basketball. We find out such folks aren’t mere political units. We get to know flesh-and-blood people who have problems with aphids or are celebrating a birthday or have an elderly parent living with them.

Of the four authors, Sasse has the most practical ideas to offer. In addition to a chapter on technology in Them, he has three constructive chapters on re-educating ourselves on how democracy works, putting politics in its place, on finding ways to be rooted even in our nomadic culture, and more (pp. 133-256).

All of these and other options can rehumanize our world and ourselves. Both Brooks and Sasse emphasize that getting to know people face to face can break down the hate that unnecessarily divides us from each other. The guy who doesn’t vote like us is not an enemy, but someone who also has good ideas on home repair, has a special needs child, and knows a good new restaurant in town.

Meeting neighbors? Joining new groups? Some of us are still intimidated by all this because we just have trouble knowing what to say when we meet someone. That’s the topic of my next installment.

Image by StockSnap from Pixabay

Why All this Hate?

Why is so much political vitriol spewed these days, not just from politicians and commentators but from ordinary people? Why is social media full of such extreme rhetoric? Why can’t we have a simple conversation anymore?

Yes, cable news and talk radio hosts have taken advantage of our situation. And yes, there are more than 50,000 Russian-linked social-media accounts fueling outrage by sending automated messages on both sides of issues. But these only feed on a pre-existing condition.

In the last few years I’ve read four books which all give the same answer. Interestingly, two books were by conservatives, one was by a liberal, and one was by an independent observer.

What did all these agree on? That the primary cause of all this contentiousness is not political differences. Rather it is loneliness.

In his book Them, Republican Senator Ben Sasse notes that since World War II single-person households have tripled to 26 percent. Rates of depression and addiction are increasing. At the same time, “Between 1975 and 1995, membership in social clubs and community organizations such as the PTA, Kiwanis, and Rotary plummeted. Same with labor union membership and regular church attendance” (p. 26). The trend continues with Covid exacerbating the situation. The causes are multiple but the result is what Sasse calls a Loneliness Epidemic.

Second, conservative commentator David Brooks made the same point in The Second Mountain. Brooks thinks our increasing isolation from one another has led us to gravitate toward twisted forms of connection. As Brooks says, tribalism is the evil twin of community. The first is defined by who is our foe. The second by who is our friend.

In a third book, Upheaval, Jared Diamond, a scientist and historian with a more liberal bent, likewise notes that a hundred years ago Americans were involved in book clubs, bridge clubs, church groups, community organizations, town meetings, unions, veteran’s associations and more. This fostered trust and reliance on each other.

Then radio, then TV, then video games, then the internet, and then smart phones increasingly kept people in their homes. As a result, “heavy TV viewers trust other people less, and join fewer voluntary organizations than do people who are not heavy TV viewers” (p. 352). In short, we are increasingly separated from each other, increasingly isolated.

The fourth book comes from independent author Jeffrey Bilbro who is editor of Front Porch Republic. He writes in Reading the Times, “As Robert Nisbet puts it in his classic study, The Quest for Community, an individual thus alienated ‘not only does not feel a part of the social order; he has lost interest in being a part of it.’ Loneliness has now become an epidemic in Western liberal democracies. And, apparently, being lonely is worse for some¬one’s health than being a smoker.” (p. 127)

We are homeless and so search, even yearn, for new types of community, which we are finding on line. “In other words, perhaps it is because we are lonely and detached from our places that we put such outsized importance on the news of the day” (p. 129).

What can we do about this? I’ll take that up in my next installment.

Image by Grae Dickason from Pixabay

How to Be Right

We’ve all been wrong.

I grew up thinking you cooked vegetables on the stove top. Then I was introduced to roasting them in the oven with a little olive oil, sea salt, and cracked pepper. It was a revelation!

I used to think I was the only one who knew how to raise kids. Then I saw many other wonderful parents using very different approaches. Who knew there were lots of kinds of secret sauce!

Knowing how often we’ve all been wrong, you’d think we’d be less reluctant to change our minds. Why do we then so often dig in our heals, discounting contrary evidence?

Adam Grant in Think Again suggests one reason can be our frame of mind. When we are locked into a cycle of pride, conviction, and confirmation bias, we are likely to learn little and grow little.

Grant believes that we will be better off if we think more like scientists (but he’s willing to reconsider!). They actually get excited when they find out they are wrong because this means they may have discovered something new. By realizing they were wrong, scientists in the 20th century alone have discovered vitamins, cosmic rays, insulin, atomic nuclei, the polio vaccine, quasars, and much more.*

How did they do that? The best scientists cultivate attitudes of confident humility, doubt, and curiosity. (Interestingly, these are the same qualities that can help us persuade others more effectively—in Part Two of Grant’s book discussed here previously.)

Another barrier to creative rethinking can be a false dichotomy, like my parenting example above. We are better off assuming there are many possible answers to a question we could be explore–not just two. A simple answer can be more comforting, but a complex, nuanced idea (while perhaps harder to deal with) may be more accurate and more helpful.

For teachers and managers, Grant also explores in two separate chapters how students can be taught to constructively rethink information they receive, and how businesses can break out of comfortable but stale processes.

Am I always right? No. Are you? No again. So why not rethink?

*”Chronology of twentieth-century science,” https://press.uchicago.edu/Misc/Chicago/284158.html

The Road to Persuasion

The best way to persuade someone is to martial facts, develop multiple lines of argument, refute all your opponent’s views, and never give an inch. Right? Well, probably not.

The most effective negotiators and debaters, as described by Adam Grant in Think Again, employ three surprising approaches that can actually help change people’s minds.*

Be simple.

Don’t pile up too many arguments. Such an approach can backfire for two reasons. One is that doing so can make listeners feel threatened emotionally and intellectually. A natural response is to throw up defenses. Their minds go into overdrive looking for flaws in and counterarguments against what we are saying.

Another problem is that not all our arguments will be equally strong. Listeners have an uncanny radar for picking out the weakest argument, tearing that down, and then on the basis of that dismissing our whole case.
Counterintuitively it is better to focus on just one or two of our strongest ideas. Doing so doesn’t tend to trigger resistance as much, and it leaves us less vulnerable to a counterargument.

Be humble.

Admit when someone else is right. When we say that we are wrong or don’t know something, we don’t weaken our case. Rather this has two unexpected benefits.

One is that it makes us look more objective and thus lends credibility to everything else we say. This makes people less defensive and more open to our ideas.

Another result is that when we agree on common ground, it lessens the adversarial nature of our encounter. Instead of being opponents, we move together toward finding good solutions for all.

A variation on this is to affirm those you disagree with whenever possible. Tell them that you believe they are people of sound judgment and that their motives are good. The temperature in such a discussion will go down as well as the defenses.

Be curious.

The most effective persuaders ask many more questions than average persuaders. By honestly trying to find out what someone thinks, we can learn more about what motivates them, where we can affirm them, and thus work toward ideas that will meet their concerns and ours.

Genuine open-ended questions can also do a better job of helping people examine their own viewpoints than outright declarations. For example, we can ask:

* Something I’d love to know is, What evidence would change your mind?
* I’m curious, what do you think are the disadvantages or downsides of your view?
* I’m less concerned about my solution being the right one than finding a solution that really works. If you don’t like what I’m suggesting, how would you solve the problem instead?
* Tell me more. Why do you feel strongly about this issue?

In all this, we don’t have to convince someone on the spot. In fact, we probably won’t. But asking questions can plant a seed of doubt that can bear fruit in the long run.

Sometimes, the person who can best persuade us to think differently is ourselves.

*See chapters 5, 6, and 7 of Adam Grant, Think Again (New York: Viking, 2021), pp. 97-160.

photo credit: Pixabay RyanMcGuire

Our Strange New World

The world is a weird place. Have you ever wondered:

♦ Why do most people, even those in Africa and Asia, wear western-styled clothing?
♦ Why do people believe that reason and science are the only ways to sure knowledge while simultaneously believing that we should make decisions by following our hearts?
♦ Why was every country in the history of the world a third world country until the 1800s?
♦ Why is soccer (aka football) the world’s most popular sport?
♦ Why are there now only six countries in the world that say they aren’t democratic when 250 years ago none said they were?
♦ Even though the western world has largely cast aside Christianity, why do we still tend to embrace the distinctly Christian values of love, freedom, justice, and human dignity?

Andrew Wilson thinks he knows the answer. And that answer is 1776.

In Remaking the World Wilson contends “that 1776, more than any other year in the last millennium, is the year that made us who we are” (p. 7). In that year we find not only the birth of democracy in the American Revolution, but also of globalization, the industrial revolution, the enlightenment, the dawn of romanticism, and the rise of our ex-Christian world.

The year 1776 saw the publication of Adam Smith’s seminal ode to capitalism (The Wealth of Nations) and of Edward Gibbon’s (Christianity was the cause of) The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. That year James Watt installed the first steam engine in a commercial enterprise, and Rousseau began writing his landmark book on romanticism, The Reveries of the Solitary Walker.

But wait! There’s more!

And Wilson fills in his premise with impressive amounts of fascinating detail, vigorous synthesis, and penetrating insight. All the while he brings in contemporary illustrations from Hamilton and The Hunger Games to The Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones.

Yes, he overplays the point that 1776 was the critical year for everything—but not by much. His case for the importance of that decade and the late eighteenth century generally is extraordinary. More to the point, when it comes to why our world is the way it is, he exhibits vast and highly illuminating explanatory power.

Wilson closes with three Christian themes from the 1770s to help navigate the weird world that decade has bestowed on us.

Grace. We do not bear the impossible burden that our (enlightenment and romantic) world places on us of creating our own identity, status, and value. Rather, God shows his favor to us regardless of our accomplishments, intelligence, or wealth.

Freedom. Though Christians have often failed to live up to Jesus’ model of offering good news to the poor and liberty for the oppressed, we still have the opportunity to champion both. By the Spirit we can battle two opposite lies. On the one hand we can oppose the idol of materialistic (industrialized, affluent) success in the church in favor of spiritual flourishing. On the other hand, we can fight the gnostic heresy that the material world doesn’t matter by combating the lie that the physical lives of the poor and oppressed are not important.

Truth. Reality is not lodged in abstract, impersonal, scientifically verifiable principles. Rather truth is graciously personified in the Father, Son, and Spirit. Jesus, who was full of both grace and truth, again is our model. We dare not separate the two.

If you want to understand what’s going on in the world today and respond to it fruitfully, don’t follow the news. Instead read my “Book of the Year”—Remaking the World.

What to Read Next

How do you find good books to read?

Probably you do as I do–listen to recommendations from friends. Many have similar tastes, which is great. But many have different interests. And I try to listen to them too because that expands my range.

I recently listened to How to Stay Married by Harrison Scott Key. That didn’t sound like a book I’d generally put high on my list, but a friend said it was funny, insightful, and a crazy honest memoir. But mostly it was funny. And she was right!

My grandson was reading Artemis Fowl and I asked what he thought. He was enthusiastic. I also found the book to be fun and creative, a wild and entertaining ride.

Like you, when I enjoy a book, I read other things the author has written. Friends put me on to Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache series. After the first, I was delighted to keep moving though all the rest.

Goodreads is another way to find out what friends are reading and enjoying. When I see several people giving the same book a high rating, I make note. This (along with the neighborhood book club I am part of) is especially helpful for reading a diversity of author’s and genres.

Finally, I pay attention to books that are referenced in more than one book I’ve read. The one that has risen to the top in recent years is A Secular Age by Charles Taylor. The book came out in 2007, and I have read a half dozen different books which make major use of Taylor’s framework and ideas. I confess that I have delayed diving into it because it is almost 900 pages and probably not the easiest read. But I think the time has come.

I am aiming to read it this year. I’ll report back and let you know how it goes.

Men and Women in the Church

A Third Way?

Debates about how men and women should function in the church have not gone away. Some (often called Complementarians) think the Bible clearly defines roles for each, and some (often called Egalitarians) think the Bible clearly gives freedom for all. Back and forth they go, often doing excellent studies of biblical texts and their background. Yet often we just lob verses across an ecclesiastical no-man’s land.

Is there another way? A way to move beyond this impasse? A way that is more, can I say, “Christian”?

There might be. Perhaps we can agree on something that can help us all move forward.

Take what Paul says in his letter to the Galatians, for example. It’s a well-known verse often referenced in these discussions. “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28). This comes in the middle of a letter that is about making sure Gentiles are treated as full members in the body of Christ, not as second-class Christians. Law shouldn’t divide us, Paul says. Rather grace should unite us.

The practical implication is that we should be working toward helping each other flourish in Christ as much as possible—regardless of whether we are Jew, Gentile, slave, free, men, women, young, old, rich, poor. Our aim is that all experience freedom in Christ (Gal 5:1-12) and life in the Spirit (Gal 5:13-26) to the fullest.

My point is this: regardless of our views on the roles of women in the church, at the very least Paul is asking us all to do more. Complementarians and Egalitarians can both do more to make sure women (and other groups) thrive in the grace of Christ.

Paul’s passionate argument in Galatians calls on all of us to seriously ask questions such as, “How can we all proactively do more? What can we do to make sure that the women in our congregation are growing in Christ, learning more of his grace, growing in their love for God and others? Are there practical changes we can implement that will aid and encourage all groups (but especially those who may be sidelined, because that is Paul’s point) to more fully use their gifts for the building up of the body of Christ? How can we make sure the talents, experiences, and opinions of women are appreciated, that their dignity as people in the image of Christ is affirmed? In this context, how can we look to the interests of others first rather than our own (Phil 2:3-4)?”

Of course, one of the best ways to get answers to these questions is to ask women and others, and listen to them.

Even if we don’t change our views on men and women in the church, Paul says we should seek practical ways to de-emphasize law and emphasize freedom in Christ.

Is that something we could all agree to do? How would you do it?

People image by Yvette W from Pixabay.

St. Louis Botanical Garden image by Andrew T. Le Peau.

Avoiding Sentimentalism

Creating true art and defining it are both difficult.

One way to understand art is by contrasting it with sentimentalism. For writers, the difference is crucial.

In The Evangelical Imagination, Karen Swallow Prior offers clarity and direction for us.

Sentimentalism is an emotional response in excess of what the situation demands; it’s an indulgence in emotion for its own sake . . . . Emotionalism can also be evoked by external manipulation. This is what sentimental art does: it attempts artificially to create feelings that exceed what the situation warrants. . . .

If the purpose of art is to recreate human experience, the purpose of sentimental art is to create emotional experience. . . .

Sentimentalism can do harm when emotions are evoked apart from or subordinate to other aspects of the human experience (such as intellectual, spiritual, or physical experience) and thus to the totality of what is real. Whether portraying things in terms overly sweet or overly sad, or whether interpreting people (who are complex) as one-dimensional heroes or villains, sentimentality smooths over the rough edges of reality and glosses over hard questions so as to tie things up neatly in a bow.*

Some Christians have a tendency to do just this. We prefer simplistic answers to more truthful but incomplete reflections. We hesitate to show how both heroes and villains are genuine mixtures of faults and virtues. Here are two brief cases.

First, a nonfiction example. The problem of evil is possibly the most intractable difficulty in Christianity (as well as for every religion). Though I have been helped by many discussions of the topic, in all my reading, I have yet to find any completely logical answers that are morally, emotionally, spiritually, and theologically satisfying. In fact, I don’t think any are possible this side of heaven. Even the book of Job offers no explanation for the origin of evil or justification for why evil exists. God does not give any reasons for innocent suffering. We do a disservice to our readers, to reality, and to our faith if we suggest that the problem is completely solvable. Possibly we can see hints, but we must be honest that we cannot answer it fully.

Second, let’s turn to fiction. In Shūsaku Endo’s Silence we have a historical novel set in the 1600s during a period of great persecution of the growing Christian movement in Japan. The protagonist, Father Rodrigues, acts faithfully throughout the book until the end when he is faced with the threat of torture and death for himself and his fellow believers. Ultimately he disavows his faith—yet the book portrays this simultaneously as an act of faith as well as unfaith.

The antihero of the book, Kichijiro, repeatedly betrays Father Rodrigues in the face of threat and persecution. But ironically, in the end it is Kichijiro who is martyred for maintaining his faith.

There are no nice, neat bows in Silence. All we find are gritty reality and lots of questions. Is it right to save the lives of others by recanting our faith? How do we faithfully love Christ and love others? What are the ways we are pressured to compromise our faith in a modern, individualistic, consumerist society?

This is what true art does and what art that is true to faith does. It doesn’t merely affirm what we already believe. It propels us to a deeper life of faith.

*Karen Swallow Prior, The Evangelical Imagination (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2023), pp. 126-28 (my emphasis).

Lent and Fasting

As series editor for the Through Old Testament Eyes commentaries, I’m excited that the newest volume on Matthew (releasing in March 2024) is from my good friend and first-rate scholar David Capes. To give you just a taste, here is a brief excerpt that is apt for the beginning of Lent.

Matthew 4:2 After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. Jesus fasted for forty days and nights, perhaps in imitation of Moses who remained on Mt. Sinai forty days and forty nights without bread and water (Dt 9:9; cf. Ex 24:18). We have seen already how often Matthew finds the correspondence between Moses and Jesus. Whether on the mount of temptation or Mount Sinai, both men were preparing for the next phase of their remarkable missions.

Fasting, of course, is part of Israel’s discipline before God. Jesus affirms it in the lives of his own disciples . . . . Throughout the Old Testament, fasting appears to come at various times for various purposes: (1) to mark seasons of joy (Zec 8:18–19); (2) to express deep mourning (Ne 1:4); (3) to ask for a safe journey (Ezr 8:21); (4) to demonstrate humility (Ps 69:10); (5) to seek answers (Da 9:3); (6) to accompany repentance (Joel 2:12). There are others too, but these represent some of the many faces of fasting. Scholars note that fasting seems to be on the rise with and after the exile. By the time of Jesus, fasting appears as a regular feature of Jewish piety for the Pharisees and the followers of John (cf. Did 8.1; Tertullian, On Fasting 16; Tacitus, Hist 5.4.3). But fasting, in and of itself, may not have any rewards if it is not done in the right way for the right reason.

According to the prophet Isaiah, fasting without a life of repentance, a life turned Godward, leads to nothing (Isa 58:2–5). But fasting that addresses injustice and meets the needs of the poor brings healing and help in time of need (58:6–9). Proper fasting, the Scripture says, results in your light breaking forth like the dawn and God’s glory standing watch over your rear guard. Perhaps Jesus fasts after his baptism—after this turning point in his life—inspired by the words of Isaiah 58. If he had meditated on the prophet’s teaching, he leaves his wilderness experience expecting the Lord to guide him and satisfy his body and bones in these parched places.*

David B. Capes, Matthew Through Old Testament Eyes (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Academic, 2024), p. 76.

Today’s Evangelicals Are Yesterday’s Fundamentalists

A few years back, my wife was describing me to some new friends. When she used the word evangelical, their faces twisted as if they’d eaten a moldy lemon. She realized immediately that she had meant one thing by the word and her new friends understood another.

They understood evangelical to mean:

♦ Politically Republican and right-wing
♦ Anti-gay
♦ Anti-intellectual
♦ Angry and hateful
♦ Probably racist

My wife meant I was:

♦ Christ- and Bible-centered in my faith
♦ Open to engaging culture constructively
♦ Intellectually curious
♦ Politically independent

The word evangelical has a long history, going back about three hundred years in England to describe a movement intended to revive the token Christianity that was widespread at the time. In the mid-twentieth century, Billy Graham (who welcomed Catholics and African Americans) adopted the label to distinguish himself from fundamentalists. This latter group emerged in the early twentieth century, coming to national attention with the Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925. They believed the Bible was literal and inerrant, were doctrinally conservative, anti-science, and separated themselves from mainstream culture as well as from any believers who didn’t agree with them.

If fundamentalists sound like what my wife’s friends meant by evangelical, it’s not a coincidence. As I’ve written here before, a few decades ago, fundamentalists in the U.S. began dropping that label (partially to avoid confusion with Muslim fundamentalists) and adopted (co-opted?) the term evangelical.

In addition, the former fundamentalists became more politically active and power focused, beginning a series of moves within Christian denominations and organizations to wrest control from “moderates” (most notably among Southern Baptists).

Evangelical social involvement has seen many changes over the centuries. Two hundred years ago evangelicals were at the forefront of ending slavery, reducing alcoholism, fighting poverty, and defending Cherokee rights. A hundred years later, however, fundamentalists had withdrawn from the public sphere.

Now those who formerly called themselves fundamentalists have become much more socially and politically engaged. Today they support pro-life causes, second amendment rights, a strong military, and advocate restricting voting rights, immigration, and affirmative action for minority groups. These last three are often seen as evidence of racist outlooks.

The political emphasis in the U.S. of today’s evangelicals has come to dominate what Americans understand by the term, as it did for my wife’s friends.* This is both because the media views everything through the single lens of politics and because of the movement’s own emphasis on a political program at the expense of a spiritual one.

All this leaves me with a problem. While I’ve considered myself an evangelical for decades, it has become a problematic label to use. It doesn’t seem to communicate the right things to anyone. I don’t think I’ve changed over the years from what my wife meant by calling me evangelical, but the meaning of the term has changed all around me.


*Evangelicalism (in the original sense) is not just a North American or Western phenomenon. It is a worldwide movement estimated to encompass 600 million people. For most of these, it is religious and spiritual in nature and not associated with any political party or philosophy.

Photo credit: InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA, Urbana 64.