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Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

A Failure of Nerve

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For several years now I’ve appreciated and benefited from Edwin Friedman’s book on leadership, A Failure of Nerve. I enjoy thinking about big ideas that help to make sense of God’s world. For example, it is helpful to think of all sin as being a form of idolatry, or a form of pride, or arising from a kind of covetousness. We look for a structure of conflict and climax in most of our stories. René Girard teaches us to look for imitation and scapegoating in all of the crises of story and history, and points us to the one scapegoat who alone can cover mankind’s sin.

Edwin Friedman’s organizing big idea revolves around anxiety. He was a student of organizational behavior, ranging from families and churches to businesses and nations. He suggests that all of the ways that an organization can break down involve a kind of anxiety on the part of the group or the leader or both. And from this he draws a program of non-anxious leadership.

Friedman sees anxiety behind how a group or organization becomes stagnant, resistant or even hostile to change and growth; and also behind leaders’ addictions to either quick fixes or to data rather then decisive action. He suggests that a non-anxious approach to leadership is crucial, that the “calm presence” of a leader matters more to calming an organization’s anxiety than almost anything else the leader says or does. He develops this into an idea of what he calls “differentiation,” which is the leader’s own focus on his integrity and stability. Out of this non-anxious differentiation, he charges leaders to allow their organizations to experience a healthy dose of their own learning experience and even pain so that they can mature; what you might call a sort of non-anxious “tough love” that is appropriately sympathetic but does not devolve into the kind of empathy that is powerless to help others grow. In Friedman’s model, the leader functions both as a kind of anxiety absorber and also an immune system.

Although Friedman was not a Christian, many of his ideas have Christian parallels. Jesus charges us not to be anxious, and the fact that Jesus himself is not anxious is perhaps the greatest boost to our own faith. It is faith, after all, that is the true antidote to fear and anxiety, and Jesus invites us to bring our cares to him. Perhaps a way of expressing Friedman’s differentiated self is to say that it is a faith-filled, wise, mature, patient, and Spirit-governed self. This integrity of a leader includes the careful watching of his life and doctrine, and the taking of logs out of our own eyes before we address the specks in others’ eyes.

There is a superficial way of reading Friedman that suggests that leaders should be aloof and uncaring. I don’t think this is what he is saying, but in any case we want to be careful not to swing the pendulum that far. And while anxious leadership may be the problem of our time, we should also be on guard for a sinful complacency.

Additional reading:

Written by Scott Moonen

November 17, 2019 at 5:54 pm

Posted in Books, Parenting, Vocation

Hear Ye

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My friend Michael and I exchanged our recent listening. Here’s what I’m listening to these days:

Written by Scott Moonen

October 29, 2019 at 1:12 pm

Posted in Books, Miscellany, Music

Knowledge of good and evil

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As part of a men’s group at church, I had to devise an outline for a class for young men. My first inclination was to structure it around the fruit of the Spirit. I eventually ended up with: (1) love for the Bible, (2) basic doctrine, (3) dominion and vocation, (4) fruit of the Spirit, (5) Kuyperian Chestertonianism (about which see more below), (6) wisdom and leadership. But I’ve just finished rereading J. C. Ryle’s Thoughts for Young Men; I wonder if I was reaching too high and should have stuck with the fruit of the Spirit.

I’ve been searching for a pithy quote from Lewis on the kinds of readers and books that read or are read repeatedly. I’m not sure there is a single quote that catches it all; looks like I am going to have to read An Experiment in Criticism, which is not such a bad thing.

Reflecting more on the topic of wisdom and leadership, as well as some books I could read repeatedly, here is a partial list of things I’ve learned and which I want to pass on to my children:

1. Devote yourself to Scripture. Invest time in it; cultivate your understanding of it and your love for its stories, poetry, and truth. Some men who have helped me here are Dad (by example), Geerhardus Vos (Biblical Theology started me on the road of covenant theology with a striking vision of just how much the Old Testament is shot through with grace), and James Jordan (whose complete audio collection was the best $100 I ever spent, introducing me to the deep typological poetry of scripture and reality). For basic doctrine, J. I. Packer’s Knowing God is an excellent start, and Calvin’s Institutes is hard to beat as a far ranging and pastoral introduction. Peter Lillback’s The Binding of God does a great job spelling out a biblical covenant theology from Calvin’s writings.

It is difficult to summarize just how much Jordan has helped me. He ranges from grand typological patterns down to delightful detailed insights. For example, one fruitful model he develops is a series of exodus patterns from one end of scripture to the other. He identifies a progression of priest, king, and prophet in several contexts. Another great organizing pattern is his idea that Scripture and history have three themes rather than just one. You can observe these themes by considering the two great falls in Genesis 3: (1) if there had been no fall, God’s purpose was for the maturation and glorification of humanity and creation; (2) once Satan fell, God additionally purposed to wage holy war against sin; and (3) once Adam fell, God finally intended to redeem humanity and creation.

2. Wisdom. One of the Bible’s terms for wisdom is knowledge of good and evil (Compare 2 Chron 1:10 with 1 Kings 3:9), which should ring some bells. Relative to Adam and Eve, this points to a connection between wisdom and maturity. Relative to Solomon, this reminds us that wisdom has partly to do with exercising judgment (a la 1 Kings 2:9). James Jordan has impressed on me, partly from his work on the lives of the patriarchs (see his helpful book Primeval Saints) that wisdom, faith, patience, maturity, and what he calls a “long time sense” are all closely linked with one another. I think this is true and bears much fruit upon reflection. See also Hebrews 11.

3. Trust and obey. I have found it tremendously helpful and freeing to look at a situation through the lens of trust and obey. What parts of this situation do I have to entrust to God, and what parts of this am I responsible for? Part of maturity is accepting that a great part of your life and circumstances are beyond your control or authority to change, and may never change.

It goes deeper as well, for there is a way in which trusting must cover all things and also a way in which obeying must cover everything. Our trust must be obedient and our obedience must be full of faith.

4. The fruit of the Spirit. The fruit of the Spirit is the picture of the mature Christian. It is especially important to pursue all of the fruits of the Spirit, lest we become joyful busybodies or self-controlled stoics. It is also important to work hard at cultivating the fruit while we pray for the Spirit’s help. The times you feel least like you are walking effortlessly in the fruit are precisely the times that you have the opportunity to grow in it.

We speak of sharing our “real” or “authentic” selves as if this were a virtue. Certainly there is a place for confessing our fears and temptations one another for the purpose of fighting them. But much of what passes for our “real” selves is the indulgence of our fears and temptations. In fact we are always making a choice how to reveal our selves to the world; we are always wearing one kind of mask or another. We must wear the right mask; we must choose the fruit of the Spirit. It is strange to think that we should be less gracious to those who are close to us.

C. R. Wiley helpfully summarizes much of what a leader must put on as gravitas. See his helpful books Man of the House and The Household and the War for the Cosmos. As part of your work on the fruits of faithfulness and self control, you should be working on knowledge, competence, and even strength and endurance. At the same time, cultivate the fruit of humility, remembering that all these, and leadership itself, are in the service of Another.

5. Mimesis and scapegoating. The imitative scapegoating process is how humans seek justification apart from Jesus (for that matter, it is how we are justified in Jesus). Understanding scapegoating and its tremendous prevalence in our world will help to inoculate us from participating in it, rob it of its ability to surprise and threaten us, equip us to expose and defuse it, and strengthen us to resist it. You should go to Rene Girard; start with his book, I See Satan Fall Like Lightning.

6. Do not be anxious. Anxious leadership is the rock on which many families and institutions have foundered. Edwin Friedman treats on this in A Failure of Nerve (see Alastair Roberts’s helpful summary). If you can fight these subtle forms of anxiety, while also avoiding the errors of apathetic and aloof leadership, all while calmly and confidently resisting anxious and even scapegoating sabotage, then you are well on your way to effective leadership.

7. Torn. Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy’s cross of reality has been a fruitful picture for me. He pictures life laid out on one axis from past to future, and another axis from inside to outside. Families, churches, nations, and businesses are all laid out upon this cross in different ways. For example, in the church, you have the concerns of orthodoxy (past), reformational growth in development and understanding and holiness (future), discipleship (inside), and evangelism (outside). These two dimensions fit together, so that there are inside and outside aspects to past and future, and vice versa. Most people gravitate in particular directions, but it is crucial to any family or institution that all of the directions be adequately represented (sales and engineering depend on each other; every institution is a “body” with eyes and and ears and hands and feet). This means that we must welcome and appreciate a diversity of interests and skills in our families, churches, nations, and workplaces. It also means that in some ways we must be willing to experience internal tensions within ourselves so that these various bodies remain whole. We are torn in little ways along the lines of this “cross” of reality so that the body itself is not torn apart. Love does not insist on its own way. Not every part of family, church, or business life will cater to our interests or stir up our hearts. In fact, it’s best for us that we are surrounded by friends who tug us in different directions.

8. Kuyperian Chestertonianism: two portly men whose work I greatly appreciate. Kuyper I appreciate because of his vision for Jesus’s exhaustive lordship over all of life; his Lectures on Calvinism is a good introduction. There is no sacred and secular; everything belongs to Jesus who is reigning at this very moment on his throne. Chesterton I appreciate for his similar delight in the goodness and glory and surprising freshness of every aspect God’s world. Taken together it really is a thrilling vision.

Jesus is lord of everything, including history, and so I am postmillennial. (He’s lord of our families too, and so I am a paedobaptist as well.) However, Jesus’s world is not just a world in which Proverbs is true, but also Job, and Psalms, and Ecclesiastes. It’s a world in which victory comes through suffering and sacrifice, and resurrection life comes through death. Grappling with the reality of toil and mist is important, but at the same time we are sustained by an inexpressible joy that can only be a gift from God. Doug Wilson’s Joy at the End of the Tether was my first introduction to this hopeful reading of Ecclesiastes. So we die to ourselves gladly, on account of the joy set before us. N. D. Wilson’s books Notes From the Tilt-a-Whirl and Death by Living capture this vision together with an exuberant Kuyperian Chestertonianism.

Written by Scott Moonen

October 6, 2019 at 4:31 pm

Creed

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Truths turn into dogmas the instant that they are disputed. Thus every man who utters a doubt defines a religion. And the scepticism of our time does not really destroy the beliefs, rather it creates them; gives them their limits and their plain and defiant shape. We who are Liberals once held Liberalism lightly as a truism. Now it has been disputed, and we hold it fiercely as a faith. We who believe in patriotism once thought patriotism to be reasonable, and thought little more about it. Now we know it to be unreasonable, and know it to be right. We who are Christians never knew the great philosophic common sense which inheres in that mystery until the anti–Christian writers pointed it out to us. The great march of mental destruction will go on. Everything will be denied. Everything will become a creed. It is a reasonable position to deny the stones in the street; it will be a religious dogma to assert them. It is a rational thesis that we are all in a dream; it will be a mystical sanity to say that we are all awake. Fires will be kindled to testify that two and two make four. Swords will be drawn to prove that leaves are green in summer. We shall be left defending, not only the incredible virtues and sanities of human life, but something more incredible still, this huge impossible universe which stares us in the face. We shall fight for visible prodigies as if they were invisible. We shall look on the impossible grass and the skies with a strange courage. We shall be of those who have seen and yet have believed.

Chesterton, Heretics

Written by Scott Moonen

September 2, 2019 at 5:03 pm

Manners

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Manners have the power to preserve [a] salutary distance between the public and the private by enabling us to recognize the distinctive and legitimate claims that others make on us. The codes of charitable behavior require lessons in wearing the right kinds of masks. Against the contemporary urge to dispense with masks and to “let it all hang out,” as the crude metaphor has it, W. H. Auden insists:

Only animals who are below civilization and the angels who are beyond it can be sincere. Human beings are, necessarily, actors who cannot become something before they have first pretended to be it; and they can be divided, not into the hypocritical and the sincere, but into the sane who know they are acting and the insane who do not.

The ancient Greeks understood this necessity of wearing a face, the requirement to project a certain image of oneself in order to exist as any self at all. We become the things we perform, as the outward life largely shapes the inward, despite modern notions to the contrary. In fact, the Greek word persona means “mask.” The question is never whether we shall wear masks, therefore, but what kind of masks we shall wear.

Auden further elaborates the nature of manners: “To be well–bred means to have respect for the solitude of others, whether they be mere acquaintances or, and this is much more difficult, persons we love; to be ill–bred is to importune attention and intimacy, to come too close, to ask indiscreet questions and make indiscreet revelations, to lecture, to bore.” Good breeding and gracious manners cannot serve, of course, as a surrogate for grace itself. Yet in a culture at least nominally Christian—as O’Connor’s Christ–haunted South most surely was—the two orders of grace should not be wholly alien. There is something profoundly courteous in the call of the gospel to count others better than oneself: “Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Philippians 2:4). O’Connor believed that the social manners of the South, despite their many deceptions and hypocrisies, could sometimes serve as a far–off reflection of God’s own incarnate love.

. . .

In a speech given at the outbreak of World War I, John Fletcher Moulton dealt with what O’Connor calls the social discipline that must be rooted in manners by distinguishing between the obligatory and the voluntary spheres of human life. He argued that the domain of “Positive Law” prescribes the things we are required to do and to refrain from doing in order for society to exist at all. Here our masks are effaced, as it were, in the act of becoming public citizens. At its opposite extreme lies the domain of “Absolute Choice”: there we are at liberty to follow the bent of our own wills, without prohibitions or commands of any kind—thus wearing whatever masks we choose. In that realm of utter freedom are born all “spontaneity, originality, and energy.” But between these two rather restricted realms lies the vast uncharted region that Lord Moulton calls “manners.” Here we impose limits on ourselves; here we do what we ought to do even though we are not obliged to do it; here we refuse to turn our liberty into license, honoring instead “the sway of duty, fairness, sympathy, taste.” The task of manners, therefore, is to find the right mask, the projected image that enables uncoerced charity. Hence Moulton’s description of manners as “Obedience to the Unenforceable”:

To my mind the real greatness of a nation, its true civilization, is measured by the extent of this land of Obedience to the Unenforceable. It measures the extent to which the nation trusts its citizens, and its existence and area testify to the way they behave in response to that trust. Mere obedience to Law does not measure the greatness of a Nation. It can easily be obtained by a strong executive, and most easily of all from a timorous people. Nor is the license of behavior which so often accompanies the absence of Law, and which is miscalled Liberty, a proof of greatness. The true test is the extent to which individuals composing the nation can be trusted to obey self–imposed law.

(Ralph Wood, Flannery O’Connor and the Christ–Haunted South, 128–129, 132)

See also: Nowhere

Written by Scott Moonen

October 27, 2018 at 4:11 pm

Posted in Books, Quotations

Rules

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We assume that rules will irremediably inhibit what would otherwise be the boundless and intrinsic creativity of our children, even though the scientific literature clearly indicates, first, that creativity beyond the trivial is shockingly rare and, second, that strict limitations facilitate rather than inhibit creative achievement. Belief in the purely destructive element of rules and structure is frequently conjoined with the idea that children will make good choices about when to sleep and what to eat, if their perfect natures are merely allowed to manifest themselves. These are equally ungrounded assumptions. (Jordan Peterson, 12 Rules for Life, Rule 5)

See also: Self-control

Written by Scott Moonen

September 1, 2018 at 11:02 am

Posted in Books, Parenting, Quotations

Risk

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Douglas Wilson summarizing Nassim Taleb’s Skin in the Game:

Taleb is arguing that risk is not only a good thing, it is a necessary good thing. It is really a good thing; and we should covet it; we should pursue it; we should embrace it; we should not resent it; we should not try to structure our lives in such a way that we are buffered from the consequences of our choices.

You want to live in such a way that when you make a wise choice, you reap the benefit; when you make a foolish choice, you want the consequences to rain down upon your head.

That is the way of wisdom.

See also: Irrevocable.

Written by Scott Moonen

July 13, 2018 at 8:47 am

Posted in Books, Quotations