The Words of a 20th-Century Prophet

Today, May 15, 2024, is the fortieth anniversary of the death of Francis A. Schaeffer (1912-1984). To mark the occasion The Gospel Coalition released a retrospective piece on this influential twentieth-century Christian apologist by long-time Schaeffer associate Dick Keyes .

I also wrote on how Schaeffer spoke prophetically about one of the most pressing needs that the church has today—showing love to each other. If you’d like to see it, just click here.

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Why is showing love so important? As I noted earlier, one reason among many is that if we don’t show love to other Christians, we can’t expect non-Christians to believe in Jesus (John 17:20-21). In  Schaeffer’s book addressing this, The Mark of the Christian, he assumes something that I fear many Christians have lost. He assumes that evangelism is a priority. Instead, many certainly act like politics or the culture wars are more important. Yet when we disagree with anger and vitriol, we handicap our ability to draw people to Jesus.

My wife and I can’t be the only one who had a neighbor say, “I don’t want to be a Christian because I don’t want to be like them.”

“What do you mean? Be like them how?”

“Christians are just so hateful,” came the reply. Jesus would consider this response justified.

Sadly, the internet can bring out the worst in all of us–both in what we post and in how we react to those we disagree with. These days we seem to assume the worst possible motivations for the actions and words of others.

Instead it is time to give each other the benefit of the doubt and find room for grace.

A Simple Key to Great Conversations

“Yes, I’d like to be better at talking to people. But I always blank out. What do I say?”

The beauty is we don’t have to say much at all. Why? Because most people want the opportunity to talk about themselves. All we have to do is ask them.

In my last post I mentioned Holleman’s four mindsets that prepare us for talking to others. In The Six Conversations, she also offers (not surprisingly) six types of questions we can ask that largely cover the scope of our lives. While she gives dozens of examples with excellent advice on how to use them, here a few of the sorts of questions she suggests.

◊ How are things going with your [roommate, parents, siblings]?
◊ If you could have dinner with anyone, past or present, who would it be?
◊ What upcoming plans do you have with friends?

◊ What’s made you grateful recently?
◊ What are you looking forward to?
◊ Wow. That’s a big deal. How did you feel about that?

◊ What have you been doing to relax lately?
◊ What restaurants/new meals have you tried lately?
◊ Was that [recent experience] refreshing or draining for you?

◊ What have you been learning about or thinking about lately?
◊ Who else have you talked to about these ideas? [social]
◊ How do those ideas make you feel? [emotional]
◊ Have those ideas made you think about doing anything different? [volitional]

◊ In light of your [news, concern, complaint, problem, opportunity], what choices do you have?
◊ What’s your next step?
◊ Do you have any goals you are working on? Or as a friend recently asked me, “What big goals would you like to accomplish before your kids take away your car keys?” (!)

◊ What’s your spiritual journey been like?
◊ What spiritual traditions do you resonate with?
◊ What kind of spiritual environment did you grow up in?

To keep great conversations and relationships growing, it’s key to be nonjudgmental, to ask follow-up questions, and not be too quick to give our perspective.

My Three-Question Starter Kit
I keep reviewing this list so the questions become more second nature, but if you want just three to remember, here’s the ones I’ve used:

◊ What’s the story behind [your pet, the college you picked, your interest in ____, etc.]?
What surprised (excited, disappointed) you about [your weekend, the test, the trip, etc.]?
◊ Before we go, what else would you like me ask that you haven’t had a chance to talk about yet?

Holleman has so much more to offer in her wise, practical book which can lead us out of the isolation and polarization we’ve felt. If we can stay curious and believe the best about others, we may not only help others be less lonely, we may also help ourselves.

Giraffe image by Christine Sponchia from Pixabay
Friends image by Eva Michálková from Pixabay

Learning How to Talk to People Again

The 2018 Cigna health study reported that nearly half of all Americans said they sometimes or always feel alone or left out. Younger generations are even lonelier. And that was before Covid! Other countries report the same.

Loneliness is not only a mental health issue. As I mentioned here, it is often at the root of our political polarization.

Much of this is because we are isolated and have forgotten how to talk to each other. How do we get out of this cycle? As someone who is not a great conversationalist, I found The Six Conversations by Heather Holleman, associate professor at Penn State, to be wise and practical. The place to start, she says, is with four mindsets.

Be curious. Everyone has a backstory. Everyone has childhood memories. Everyone has learned hard or happy life lessons. Discovering this can be as easy as saying, “I’m so curious. Tell me about __________.”

By doing so we show that we value other people and open a door to connection. I’ve also seen that once a curiosity question is asked, it often gets turned back to the asker. “OK, I told you how I like to relax. What about you?”

Believe the best. Social media and news media have trained us to start with a mindset of judging, shaming, and changing others. Much better for us and them to begin with acceptance, sympathy, and respect. Remember the grandparent or friend whose face lights up when they see us? We can be that for others.

We all know that in marriage or parenting, relationships just go better if we don’t jump to conclusions about motives or intentions. You may have heard the saying, “Be kind. Everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” How much better it is to start with that assumption if the laundry didn’t get folded instead of accusing someone of laziness!

Express genuine concern. Holleman says that this means we are invested in another person. So yes, we start with sympathy or empathy, but we try to find appropriate ways to act too. “Investment doesn’t mean to take on everyone’s problems as your own, but it does mean you position yourself to support others as you can” (p. 33).

It means celebrating with those who celebrate and mourning with those who mourn. And if you’re not sure what the best way would be to do either of those, just ask about some specific options. “I want to hear more. What would be best—a walk, a call, going for coffee?” Or “How can I help—taking the car in for repair, watching the kids, bringing a meal?”

Share yourself. The first three mindsets can have an amazing effect. But if we never talk about our own victories or defeats, the other person can feel like they are our project.

While we shouldn’t say we know just how someone feels about trouble at work, a parent being sick, or conflict with a neighbor (because we don’t know exactly how someone else feels!), we can say how we feel. “It makes me sad knowing you are in such a tough situation.”

After listening well and asking follow-up questions, we could also say, “What you’re describing makes me wonder what thoughts you might have about a situation I’m in.”

Taking in all four mindsets could be a lot. So start small. If we can grow in even one of the first two (be curious; believe the best), we can see real changes in our relationships.

Holleman offers much more to guide us into healthier and deeper relationships. The four mindsets are just the first chapter! In my next installment, I’ll focus on just one other aspect of her excellent book—how to ask great questions.

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,”

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.

My Year in Books

I usually don’t plan out my reading, and this past year was no exception. As I look back, however, I’m happy with my mix of topics and genres.

On average I read or listened to a book a week in 2023, about thirty of them being nonfiction. Of those, twenty covered topics like the Christian life, the church calendar, Christian political involvement, and the New Testament. The other ten were general nonfiction titles including three memoirs and two in American history.

Of the twenty-two fiction titles, the biggest single group (nine books) was SciFi and Fantasy which is a favorite for me. Another three were young adult and the rest general fiction, set mostly during the last hundred years.

Here are some of the best from my year:

Educated by Tara Westover (2018) is the astounding memoir of a woman who grew up in a radically survivalist family in Idaho, who never went to school and was only self-taught till she, amazingly, was accepted into college. The story is almost unimaginable how she managed to extricate herself from the iron grip of this sub-subculture reinforced by its extremist religious beliefs, violence, and emotional intimidation.

Everything Sad Is Untrue by Daniel Nayeri (2020) is another memoir which opens a window into a very different culture. The author (now an adult) writes from the perspective of his young self, forced out of Iran as a refugee and ending up in Oklahoma. He delightfully communicates his obvious love for his native Persian culture even as he, his mother (the book’s hero) and his sister escape the religious persecution of his homeland. A book full of heart and sorrow and hope.

Tell Her Story by Nijay Gupta (2023) carefully unpacks the life and ministry of women in the New Testament that is hidden in plain sight. In everyday prose, he also provides valuable cultural background which the New Testament authors left unsaid because they would have assumed all their readers would have known it. While ancient Jewish, Greek, and Roman cultures were clearly patriarchal, many women of note were exceptions which we likewise see in the earliest Christian communities.

Rembrandt Is in the Wind by Russ Ramsey (2022) offers a wonderful meditation on the worth and importance of beauty in our lives. In nine chapters this consummate storyteller highlights nine artists from the last five hundred years of the Western world. In each he tells the story of the artist, or of a particular artwork, or of the subject of the art. The tales and their backstories are fascinating, engrossing, and sometimes tragic. Ramsey weaves together mysteries, human drama and more into compelling tapestries. A book of wisdom, of grace, and of beauty.

My local library has used the tagline: “Never apologize for your reading tastes.” Whether your reading is fun or serious, long or short, many or few, may your reading fill you in the coming year.

The Book We Need This Year

When I was recently asked to do a six-minute radio interview on Francis Schaeffer’s classic The Mark of the Christian, I was reminded what a good book it would be to read this year. With all the political vitriol sure to be spouted incessantly, Christians will be challenged. Will we follow the world’s ways or follow Jesus’ command to his disciples to “love one another” (John 13:34)?

If we frequently listen to radio, TV, podcasts and even sermons that tell us that people who disagree with our political views are ignorant and unbiblical, if not downright in league with the devil, how can we help but think and feel the same?

Schaeffer makes two compelling points from John’s gospel in this book that can be read in just an hour. First, if we don’t show love toward other Christians, then non-Christians have the right to say we aren’t Christians at all. “By this,” Jesus says, “everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35).

And Jesus was right. That is exactly what happens when my neighbors see how much Christians show hatred toward others. “How can they call themselves Christian when they act so unlike Jesus?”

Schaeffer’s second point is perhaps even more dramatic. When Christians show loving harmony and grace toward each other, that is “the final apologetic.” It is proof that the gospel is true. When Christians are “brought to complete unity,” Jesus says, “then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (John 17:21). Schaeffer’s timeless book closes with some very practical counsel on how to do just this.

In 2024 reading The Mark of the Christian can set us on the right path. Who’s lead will we follow? The polarizing voices of our political persuasion? Or the voice of Jesus?