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Category: Quotations (page 1 of 15)

Book Review: “Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery”

I recently finished reading Amazing GraceEric Metaxas’s biography of William Wilberforce and his work to end the slave trade. A former New York Times bestseller, this was a book that I had looked forward to reading for quite a while because I enjoyed the Amazing Grace film so much when I watched it a decade ago or so. Unfortunately, this joins a very short list of books that I find to be inferior to films based upon them (The Last of the Mohicans is probably the best example of this).

There were a few things about the book that bothered me:

  • I found much of Metaxas’s prose to be cumbersome. He tends to use flowery language and also makes random asides that seemed out of place in a biography, and cluttered up his paragraphs.
  • Amazing Grace read less like a biography, and more like a hagiography, where Metaxas’s obvious admiration for Wilberforce led him to be less than objective in his evaluation of him (and also resulted in some of the flowery language that I complained about above).
  • Metaxas, who is a politically conservative evangelical, has been criticized for idealizing the characters about whom he writes and making them look very much like himself theologically and politically. This criticism was especially strong after his biography about Dietrich Bonhoeffer, but I felt that I could catch glimpses of this in his discussion of Wilberforce’s faith, and especially in Metaxas’s caricatured portrayal of the religious faith of Wilberforce’s day. Though to be fair, having been exposed to this particular criticism of Metaxas’s writing, I was probably looking for it.

Having said that, there are some really good things about this book, and the primary one is that it helps to make accessible the life story of a remarkable man who, driven by his devout faith, worked to bring about profound changes in British society that rippled across the world. Wilberforce is famous for his fight against the slave trade, but was also very involved in the quest to reform British society and to improve British policy in India.

I’ll close by sharing some of my favorite quotations from the book, with brief commentary. In trying to explain that the legacy of Wilberforce is greater than the simple abolition of the slave trade, Metaxas writes:

To fathom the magnitude of what Wilberforce did we have to see that the “disease” he vanquished forever was actually neither the slave trade nor slavery. Slavery still exists in the world today, in such measure as we can hardly fathom. What Wilberforce vanquished was something even worse than slavery, something that was much more fundamental and can hardly be seen from where we stand today: he vanquished the very mind-set that made slavery acceptable and allowed it to survive and thrive for millennia. He destroyed an entire way of seeing the world, one that had held sway from the beginning of history, and he replaced it with another way of seeing the world. Included in the old way of seeing things was the idea that the evil of slavery was good. Wilberforce murdered that old way of seeing things, and so the idea that slavery was good died along with it. Even though slavery continues to exist here and there, the idea that it is good is dead. The idea that it is inextricably intertwined with human civilization, and part of the way things are supposed to be, and economically necessary and morally defensible, is gone. Because the entire mind-set that supported it is gone.

(Amazing Grace, xv)

Wilberforce grew up religious but basically fell away in his late teens and early twenties before experiencing a significant revival and deepening of his faith. When that took place, he was tempted to back away from politics (he was already a member of Parliament at the time), because he thought it to be an improper place for a person of strong religious conviction. His good friend William Pitt, the Prime Minister, did not want to see his friend check out of politics, and suggested that his newfound faith could find much to do in the world of politics:

Surely the principles as well as the practice of Christianity are simple, and lead not to meditation only but to action.

(Amazing Grace, 58)

Ultimately, this advice would prove influential for Wilberforce, who remained in politics and used his platform and influence to do kingdom work and bring about a profound change in the lives of millions.

Part of Wilberforce’s work in his opposition to slavery was educating the British population of the horrors that slaves faced, about which many were genuinely and totally ignorant (slave traders commonly argued that slaves were happy or at least better off in captivity, and many people naively believed it). Wilberforce investigated the living conditions of slaves and knew better, and widely disseminated the information. In a parliamentary debate, Wilberforce explained his motivation for seeking abolition:

…When we think of eternity, and of the future consequences of all human conduct, what is here in this life which should make any man contradict the principles of his own conscience, the principles of justice, the laws of religion, and of God?

Sir, the nature and all the circumstances of this Trade are now laid open to us. We can no longer plead ignorance, we cannot evade it, it is now an object placed before us, we cannot pass it. We may spurn it, we may kick it out of our way, but we cannot turn aside so as to avoid seeing it.

(Amazing Grace, 136)

Metaxas portrays the Britain of Wilberforce’s early years as one which claimed to a form of Christian civil religion, but that it was a watered-down faith that brought little to no leavening influence on the nation as a whole. Wilberforce, who spent a long career as a respected and powerful MP who was famous for his faith and his political stances based upon his faith, was instrumental in changing the religious environment of his day:

When Wilberforce entered Paliament, there were only three MPs who would have identified themselves as seriously Christian, but half a century later there were closer to two hundred. Politics had come to be thought of as a noble calling. There would always be self-seekers—and few individuals could be entirely free of selfish motivation—but the idea that politicians should be free of that motivation and work for the good of society was something new, and Wilberforce’s influence in introducing it is hard to avoid.

(Amazing Grace, 234)

If you are a believer, William Wilberforce—a man of devout faith whose faith and love of neighbor prompted him to act in unpopular ways for the good of others—is a man you need to know well. Amazing Grace is a book with some flaws, but it does a great job of helping the reader to do that—getting to know a man who spent his life working to make God’s kingdom come and His will to be done on earth as it is in heaven.

Book Review: Reclaiming Hope

Over the summer, I read Michael Wear’s Reclaiming Hope: Lessons Learned in the Obama White House about the Future of Faith in America. Wear directed faith outreach for President Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign and was one of the youngest White House staffers in modern American history. In addition to that, he is a pro-life, evangelical Christian.

In some ways, Wear is representative of a lot of young evangelicals who, though not traditionally supporters of the Democratic party, found Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign very appealing with its emphasis on hope, change, and bipartisan cooperation.

I never voted for President Obama and have written before of profound disagreements I have with him. Having said that, I have respected his devotion to his family and the way that he conducted himself while in office, and I was interested in hearing an insider’s take on the Obama presidency (and especially from an insider who operates from a belief system at least somewhat similar to my own).

In many ways, Reclaiming Hope is a memoir of Wear’s time of service for President Obama. Wear clearly has deep admiration for Obama, and this shines through so clearly that, after the first few chapters, I was afraid the whole book was going to be nothing more than an extended argument for how great Obama was.

But it wasn’t that. After beginning by emphasizing policies and accomplishments of the Obama administration of which Wear was very proud, he reflects on the things he found to be very frustrating. These frustrations include the change in tone of the Democratic party that he witnessed between 2008-2012, his cynicism over Obama’s change in policy regarding gay marriage, and ultimately, what he regarded as the great failure of Obama’s presidency: rather than bringing about  change in Washington and bipartisan cooperation, it only furthered the partisan divide that plagues our nation.

Wear concludes the book on a high note, strongly emphasizing that, from a Christian perspective, hope is not to be found in any political system or figure but in the working of a God who wants justice in His world. 

Here are a few good quotations:

“Politics is causing great spiritual harm and a big reason for that is people are going to politics to have their inner needs met. Politics does a poor job of meeting inner needs, but politicians will suggest they can do so if it will get them votes.” (xxix)

“In 2009, our diversity demanded we accept that there will be voices we disagree with in public spaces. In 2013, diversity required us to dispel dissent. In 2009, we had true pluralism and the big American tent. In 2012, at the Democratic convention, we had a pretense of including and magnanimity for political gain. In 2013, with our last four years in hand and the “weight of history on our side” that pretense went out the window. Now the Democratic Party was about consolidation.” (188)

“When our little hopes are disappointed, we find ourselves situated between the harshness of despair and the daunting, unusual existence of real hope.” (192)

“The arc of the moral universe does not bend toward justice because of a political program or the unassailable motives of humans, but because of a God who wills justice.” (197)

“There is indeed an arc to the moral universe, but it is not a matter of humanity progressing toward justice; rather, it is the God of justice who is moving toward us.” (197)

“People who place their hope in politics are idealists who then become cynics.” (205)

Somewhat startling to me considering Wear’s narrative throughout the book (and his own political disillusionment that he describes) was his chastisement toward Americans who feel represented by neither party and thus, become independents. Wear argues that being an independent is to “check out of the system” and forfeits one’s ability to be an influence (210-211).  I reject this notion, however: supporting a party that does not represent your values in hopes that that party will influence the system according to your values is logically absurd, and speaking for myself, I expect my future political involvement to remain somewhat tepid.

Regardless, I enjoyed Wear’s book: it gave me a look behind the scenes of an historical presidency, helped me to see other perspectives, and provided a strong reminder that all people of faith need to hear: the hope for our world lies not in politics, but in the God who created all things and holds all things together.

Book Review: The Reasonableness of Christianity

This semester I am in a church history class for grad school and as part of my reading for that class I recently finished John Locke’s The Reasonableness of Christianity. Locke is well-known to many people as a key thinker in the Enlightenment and specifically in the school of thought known as empiricism. His thoughts were very influential to the founding fathers of the United States, and he was also a great influence on Alexander Campbell, one of the leading early figures of the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement.

In The Reasonableness of Christianity, Locke basically sets forth the Christian faith as he sees it. Scripture teaches that Adam sinned in the Garden of Eden and, as a result, lost bliss and immortality. Humanity inherits Adam’s immortality, although we are punished only for our own misdeeds. Unfortunately, all sin and fall short of God’s glory and thus, are in need of a Savior. Jesus Christ is this Savior, the Messiah of whom the prophets spoke.

God judges us according to the law of faith, and considers believers to be righteous, granting them life and immortality. Specifically, the faith that is necessary for justification is the belief that Jesus is the Messiah, and obedience to the moral and ethical standards that he set forth. Beyond this, Locke is open to differences of opinion on a variety of doctrines, and emphasizes the importance of tolerance in view of the fact that we have limited abilities and make mistakes about what we believe.

Here are some quotations that I particularly enjoyed and would like to share, along with some of my own thoughts:

“Nay, if God afford them a temporary, mortal life, ’tis his gift they owe to his bounty, they could not claim it as their right, nor does he injure them when he takes it from them.” (27)

We frequently pay lip service to the notion of our lives being a gift from God, but do we really believe that? I wonder, sometimes, when you hear the language we use when someone dies prematurely—it seems so unjust and tragic to us. I think Locke’s perspective is a better one: each day that we live is a gift from God, and from that perspective, however long we live is more than we have any right to expect or deserve.

“For if they believed him to be the Messiah, their King, but would not obey his laws, and would not have him reign over them, they were but the greater rebels…” (46)

This seems to me to be particularly relevant to the legions of nominal Christians that exist in our society who profess Jesus as Lord with their lips but deny Him with their lives. Those who reject Jesus live in rebellion to Him, but this is only to be expected. How much greater is the rebellion from those who claim Him as Lord but ignore His demands on their lives?

“‘Tis too hard a task for unassisted reason, to establish morality, in all its parts, upon its true foundations, with a clear and convincing light.” (60)

“…But yet some parts of that truth lie too deep for our natural powers easily to reach, and make plain and visible to mankind, without some light from above to direct them.” (65)

I expected Locke to hold human reason up as the ultimate source of knowledge and truth, but as the quotations above clearly show, he doesn’t do this. Rather, he is candid about the limitations of human reason, and ultimately holds that something greater that reason—revelation—is required for the establishment of universal moral truth.

Perhaps I approached The Reasonableness of Christianity with caricatures of Deism in my mind, but I was pleasantly surprised and impressed by what I read. There are certainly points I would quibble with, but on the whole, I thought Locke gave a succinct and fairly orthodox summation of the Christian faith. He does place significant value on reason, but this was actually less than I expected, and did not seem excessive to me. Locke does not dismiss Jesus’ miracles, but instead holds them to be essential (and reasonable) evidence that Jesus is exactly who He claims to be—the Messiah. Locke also asserts that Jesus’ ethical teachings are reasonable, but even these teachings ultimately required revelation. Left to its own reason, humanity had never been able to produce a universal moral law on its own.

Finally, although it was not the focus of this writing, I appreciated Locke’s emphasis on tolerance and the allowance for some diversity of opinion while at the same time upholding key fundamental doctrines about which all Christians must be in agreement. For Locke, the essentials are faith in Jesus as the Messiah and living a good moral life in accordance with His teachings.

In the context of the bitterly divided religious world in which Locke lived (and in which we still live today), such a call for tolerance seems like a hopeful basis for unity in God’s church. Of course, the difficulty always comes in determining which doctrines are fundamental and which are matters of opinion.

Book Review: Youth Ministry In A Post-Christian World

I recently completed Brock Morgan’s Youth Ministry In A Post-Christian World: A Hopeful Wake-Up Call, and wanted to write a brief review.

Morgan’s basic premise is that the America we live in is now a post-Christian society and as such, requires different patterns and practices of youth ministry to be successful. Morgan is not an ivory tower speculator, but a youth ministry veteran who is in the trenches, and speaks from his own experiences.

There were certain elements of the book that didn’t connect with me. First, as a youth minister in semi-suburban Arkansas, the students I work with are less post-Christian than those Morgan describes in Greenwich, Connecticut. That doesn’t mean Morgan is off-base or an alarmist (more realistically, the trends he describes are just 5-10 years around the corner for me), but it did make part of his material seem foreign to my context.

Second, the author seems like a great guy, and the stated subtitle of the book is “A Hopeful Wake-Up Call,” but the reality for me was that as I read the book, it made me feel incredibly inadequate as a youth minister. I’m sure this was not the author’s intention and is probably more of a reflection of my own tendency to be overly hard on myself, but the repeated feeling of, “This is not the way I do youth ministry; I must be terrible” was not a pleasant one.

Third, a few times throughout the book, the author used some course language that I didn’t have a lot of patience for. It wasn’t pervasive, and some might be inclined to roll their eyes that I even mention it, but I have never had much use for Christian leaders using bad language—especially for those who work with teens.

Finally, there were some statements and sentiments sprinkled throughout the book that I wasn’t crazy about, and I’ll give a couple of examples. At one point, Morgan relates a story where he and another minister teach a student that religion is man-made, while spirituality is from God. There are certainly a lot of man-made trappings that can obscure and distort religion, but this is a tired, false dichotomy that gets on my nerves, and is contradicted by Scripture (James 1.27). In another place where Morgan discusses how grace should lead us to act, he makes the statement that grace teaches us to say no to discipline. One thing I have found as a youth minister is that there are a lot of times where I can show grace by not responding harshly to every instance of misbehavior. But grace is not antithetical to discipline; discipline is an essential element of discipling people (see the connection in the two words?!). These are just a couple of examples, but represent that there were several times throughout the book where I read something, narrowed my eyes, and thought, “I’m not too sure about that.”

Having gotten the negatives out of the way, I want to clearly say this: Morgan is an insightful thinker and there were many places in the book where I thought he hit it out of the park. Here are some of my favorite quotations:

Our students are growing up in a pluralistic society that’s much different than the world in which you and I grew up. And if you’re smack-dab in the midst of adolescence and your top goals are to fit in and not stand out, to be different by being just like everyone else, then the acceptance of all things is an important value to have. (27)

Christendom is now dead, and we need to get over it. (30)

In a post-Christian world, no value is placed on the Sabbath, so our children have some scheduled activity seven days a week. This has created the most anxious and stressed-out generation in history. (41)

I’d hate to think that people aren’t open to Jesus because we’re perceived as not being open to them. (82)

For many people, the church is a place that says, “If you don’t believe what we believe, vote how we vote, and take the same stand on issues that we take a stand on, then you don’t belong.” I believe God is calling us to bigger things and a more humble posture. He is calling us once again to trust the Holy Spirit. To trust that he will work out the minor things of the faith in the lives of our students.” (83)

Unanswered questions open us up to the bigness of God. When we offer pat answers to complex questions, we shrink God down to our level. (89)

Hiring a 22-year-old and paying that person an extremely low amount of money to disciple students apart from the church has an effect. Many students graduate from the youth group and simultaneously graduate from their faith. (127-28)

What if students began getting their identities from being a part of the church rather than being apart from the church? (129)

All in all, this is a work that I would certainly recommend to youth ministry workers. The reality is that 21st century America is increasingly a post-Christian society—if your context (like mine) isn’t quite there yet, it will be soon. We can pretend this isn’t reality, continue to do things in the same old ways, and then wonder why we are increasingly ineffective, or we can begin to think through the issues that Youth Ministry In A Post-Christian World discusses. I would prefer to do the latter, and was thankful for this guide.

Abolition & the Stone-Campbell Movement: James O’Kelly’s Essay on Negro-Slavery

I have written before about the unfortunate fact that there were some Christians in the antebellum South who used the Bible to justify the practice of slavery. I argued that they were wrong to do so on at least two grounds:

  1. They failed to see a distinction between the ancient slavery described and regulated in the bible and the race-based chattel slavery of the U.S. colonies and Southern states that was basically “man-stealing,” something the Bible expressly forbade (Exodus 21.16).
  2. They failed to see the profound argument set forth by Paul in the Letter to Philemon. Here, he does not seek to abolish all slavery in the Roman Empire, but instead seeks to get one man to understand the radical implications of the Christian message: slave owners should view their slaves as Christian brothers and sisters (or at least, as potential brothers and sisters) in the family of God, and to treat them accordingly. In such a family where all are equally servants of God, there is no place for slavery.

Thankfully, many Christians were not wrong on these points, and were actually at the forefront of the fight for the abolition of slavery. One prominent abolitionist (in fact, he was one of the first clergymen to write an anti-slavery publication) was James O’Kelly (1735-1826), who is of particular interest to me (and many of my readers) because of his connection to the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement.

O’Kelly was a circuit-riding Methodist preacher in North Carolina in the 1770s and 1780s. O’Kelly withdrew from the Methodist Church in 1792 over matters of church polity, and founded the Republican Methodist Church, which later became a part of the Christian Connexion. Some of the members of this group later became a part of the Stone-Campbell Movement (though O’Kelly himself died before the Stone and Campbell groups united). You can read more about him here.

In 1789, O’Kelly wrote Essay on Negro-Slavery, in which he published his strong anti-slavery views. Abilene Christian University has a digital scan of this work available for free download, and I enjoyed reading this short publication last summer. O’Kelly writes forcefully and well. I have included some quotations from the work below, along with some of my own thoughts.

First, O’Kelly didn’t actually desire to write about such a topic, but felt compelled to do so:

“Not that I looked upon it as difficult to prove the injustice of slavery, for a man of half sense can see that; but I was reluctant to become an author. Yet the word of the Lord, whenever I thought of declining, would burn like fire in my bones, and rob me of my sleep.” [“To the Reader”]

He seeks to help his audience feel empathy, as he describes the horrible practice of the breaking up of families in slave markets, and the inhumane treatment that slaves at times received from their masters:

“O husbands, who have tender wives and precious children, can you acquiesce with a law that tolerates a practices so inhuman, which enslaves human creatures who have as much right to their natural liberty as to their common air?” [9]

“A master who drank to excess, one morning, lately, took his man-slave, and hoisted and weighed him by a tobacco-beam fixed between his legs, another standing on the beam to increase the pain; beat, cut, and lashed him, till the blood poured down in streams: the slave begged for mercy, but in vain; then spake in a soft manner to the tyrant, saying, master, you have killed me. He then lifted up his eyes to Heaven and expired.” [9]

Beyond an emotional level, O’Kelly addresses the issue of slavery from a theological perspective:

“When GOD called Abraham (Gen. xii) he preached the gospel to him, saying, “In thy seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed,”—Africa not excepted.” [15]

“The Son of GOD did not come to destroy lives, but to save. Neither did he come to enslave men’s persons, but to preach the great jubilee. Involuntary slavery directly opposes the benevolent purposes of the Christian religion. The Christian religion is the pure undefiled religion, gathering proselytes from every nation into one fold. The Christian, who through the Spirit hath received a divine nature, even the mind of Christ, hath learned of his great master to be meek to his countrymen, neighbors and brethren, and the inhabitants of the remotest regions as well as of the nearest. He calls no man common or unclean. He is like his Father and his Master, whose sun shines upon the evil and the good, and who sends rain on the just and the unjust.” [17]

O’Kelly also does not shy away from the difficult issue of the practical consequences of emancipation. With blacks subjugated for so long and deprived of education and a means of building up personal wealth, what would happen to them if they were suddenly freed? O’Kelly acknowledges this problem and suggests that a gradual emancipation would be best, but with the clear understanding that the very people who have created this problem through enslaving others need to be involved in helping former slaves to live as independent, self-sufficient free people:

“You say, “they are poor and having to begin upon, how can they live, if free?” This objection is stronger than all. They are the poorest people that mine eyes ever saw. you shall take every rag of clothing that is on a thousand, and put them in the road as free plunder, and hardly a free-man would alight from his horse to pick them up! But why such poverty? Where is all their labour that you have got? Your objections make your injustice only more glaring. You are the cause of their poverty. Will you rob a man of his all, and then out of pity make a slave of him, because he has nothing to begin upon? Perhaps the grand objection lies here. “What shall we do?” Only let a gradual emancipation commence, from the pure love of GOD and man in our christian brethren, and that glorious example will influence the civil powers. Reward them for their labour; encourage good behaviour; subject them to your laws; let them have interest to study, and our country will not want hands to till the earth with comfort; their minds will be no longer so contracted: the activity of the magistrates will suppress the flagitiousness of white and black. The natural genius of the people will soon appear.” [26]

“If your present situation is such that you cannot liberate your captives without defrauding your creditors, or reducing your family into deep distress; acknowledge the wrong detention, converse with your dear preachers who feel for you, and emancipate them in a more gradual manner; and we shall rejoice in your sincerity, and acknowledge you as dear brethren in Christ.” [31]

 

In many ways this was not an enjoyable read, as it described and decried a terrible practice in a dark period of our national history. However, it was inspiring to read the thoughts of someone like O’Kelly who, thoroughly infused with the principles of the Gospel, was willing to buck the trends of his time and take a stand for justice and righteousness. Furthermore, the knowledge that he was in some sense a spiritual ancestor of mine was a simultaneous source of pride and hope.

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