Posts Tagged ‘book review’

Book Reviews: C.R. Wiley on the Household and the Cosmos

Dear Reader,

I recently read not one but two books from C.R. Wiley, a Presbyterian pastor from Connecticut. I actually read the second book, The Household and the War for the Cosmos (Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 2019), first, because a friend had asked my opinion on it. I realized as I did so that this book was actually a follow up to Wiley’s earlier work, Man of the House: A Handbook for Building a Shelter that Will Last in a World That is Falling Apart (Eugene, OR: Resource Publication, 2017), and that it did not stand well on its own. I walked away from Cosmos with a number of questions, often unsure at what Wiley was getting at, so I decided I had better read Man of the House, a longer book which explains his theories a little more fully. 

Though Wiley himself is a pastor, my short take on these two volumes together is that they are just not inherently Christian. The big idea Wiley presents will certainly appeal to some Christians and he does make use of the Bible in making his arguments, but he also looks to non-Christian sources, particularly Roman ones, and the theories he presents are more about economics and political order than about theology.  Now these things are not unrelated — everything ultimately comes back to our worldview and our ideas about God and the universe — and so we may evaluate Wiley’s ideas in the light of a biblical worldview, but how he gets where he gets is not an inherently theological exercise, if that makes sense. It actually helped me greatly to understand this. After reading Cosmos and to a lesser extent while reading Man of the House, I was left wondering about Wiley’s positions on certain high intensity theological debates of our day. He seemed at times to skirt various controversial issues but not to clearly state his view on them. When I realized he was just not giving me theological arguments, this made a little more sense. So while some of his positions may tend to support this school of thought or that one, if you are looking for books on Eternal Functional Subordination (EFS) or the Family Church movement, these are not really the place to go. 

The heart of Wiley’s books is to present a particular view of Creation (the cosmos, that is) and to make an argument for how we should live and structure our households within that greater structure. There are a few big assumptions which he makes from the outset which really shape his argument. He also covers a lot of ground so I have struggled in writing this to know how to organize all the material. In the end I think the best way to proceed is for me to go topic by topic and to sum up his arguments and give my reflections on each and then at the end to try to pull it all together and look at the bigger themes. 

Wiley on  . . . the State of the World Today

We can begin to see where Wiley is coming from even from the titles of his books. The Household and the War for the Cosmos tells us that there is a battle afoot, and  Man of the House: A Handbook for Building a Shelter that Will Last in a World That is Falling Apart tells us that Wiley thinks that a catastrophe is coming and that we need to prepare now. There is a tone of survivalism here but Wiley does not advocate running off to the wilderness with a stock of canned goods. Though he fears a breakdown of society, one which he would say has already come in many ways, his solutions have to do with building one’s own household and especially becoming self-sufficient in an economic sense. He does not advocate a retreat and actually does urge us to become involved with our neighbors and with local politics. 

One of the big assumptions Wiley makes is that the world is not in a good place and is headed for a worse one. He seems to idealize a past age, looking to a time before the rise of atheism and “sciencism” as the epitome of human civilization (Cosmos, p. 100). The modern world, on the other hand, is a low point. Even the paganism which came before Christianity is better than where we are now (Cosmos p. 101). While he is not without some optimism for the future (Cosmos p. 102), his theory is based on the premise that civilization will end and that it will do so relatively soon (Man p. xiii). It is a long, slow end he predicts and so his suggestions are not the “run away” type but the “build your life to withstand the coming cataclysm” type (Man, p. xiv).  What does the “end of civilization” look like? Beyond the breakdown of the family, Wiley mentions political disintegration and economic failure including such things as banks collapsing (Man, p. 9). 

I find Wiley’s critiques are often good and I like his point about how all the things the family used to do (eg. education, care of the elderly) have been taken away and outsourced to others. I am less inclined to agree with his assessment of the current situation vis-a-vis the past and the future. There is an eschatology underlying this all, one that says that the world is getting worse. Yet Wiley does not look to the end times for relief but anticipates a cataclysmic event which Christians can survive. It would be interesting to hear where Wiley places himself in the whole post-, pre-, a-millennial spectrum. The “world is going to hell in a handbag” attitude smacks of premillennialism, but he seems to look for answers, not in a rapture or the Second Coming, but in this time.

On  . . . Piety and the Cosmos

In Cosmos Wiley champions the virtue of piety. In our society “piety” has been downgraded first to “devotions” and then to “quiet times” (or even “QTs”). These take something that was meant to be all-encompassing and make it a personal matter accomplished in 15 minutes in the morning (Cosmos p. 14). When we eliminate the word “piety,” we also eliminate the idea (Cosmos p. 17).  For the definition of true piety, Wiley turns to both classical, especially Roman, sources and to the Bible. Based on Acts 17:23, he defines piety as reverent action towards God, leaders, family, and all to whom reverence is due (Cosmos p. 25). 

Piety is based on a certain understanding of the world which was believed in ancient times, both in (pagan) Roman culture and among Christians, but which has been lost to us today. Again, his sources are both biblical and classical, though he tends to lean heavily on the Roman ones. This worldview is summed up in the word “cosmos.” This word implies that everything that is is part of one unified and ordered system. It includes both the physical world and the spiritual one, and every thing and every being within this system has its place. Wiley advocates a return to the idea that everything is connected and that it has order. With order comes hierarchy. Piety, right duty to the other members of the hierarchy, holds the whole thing together (Man, p. 93). 

Within the cosmos are microcosms. The most basic unit within this order is the household. The cosmos itself is like one giant household of which Jesus is the governing Lord (Cosmos pp. 63, 64). The structure of the cosmos he compares to a set of Russian nesting dolls. The household is the smallest but also the most essential unit. Households together form villages, which in turn form cities, and so on. 

The purpose of our households is to serve as microcosms of the largest “cosm” of all (Cosmos p. 88). The head of the household is a kind of mediator, standing “between his household and heaven, representing each to the other” (Cosmos p. 74). Even the small household has power, like the fulcrum of a lever, to impact the world (Cosmos, p. 116). 

Though he relies more on Roman than biblical texts to support this view, I do think Wiley has something with this view of cosmos. The Bible certainly does give us an ordered Creation, containing both physical and spiritual beings, with God as the Creator of all and the Authority over all. I am a little less enamored of some of his particular emphases. I think there are dangers in the nesting doll image he uses and he overemphasizes authority structures, points we will explore as we delve a little deeper. 

Sidebar (Wiley uses lots of sidebars within his first book so I am going to use them too, to discuss a few points which would not otherwise fit well in the overall narrative): Within the layered cosmos, Wiley says: “Just a little above us, there are principalities and powers . . . Paul actually names their chief: ‘the Prince of the Power of the Air’” (Cosmos p. 56). This name is, of course, given to Satan. But this is not the biblical order. Satan is not our rightful ruler. Nor are we subject to spiritual authorities (other than God Himself), but we will rule over and judge them. Wiley later says: “The principalities continue to rage against the Lord of the Cosmos (Cosmos, p. 114), again implying that there is an active and powerful role that Satan plays in our world whereas the witness of Scripture is that Satan is bound. Yes, our battle is a spiritual one, but our enemy is not a powerful one.

On . . .  the Household

Wiley traces the origin of the household as the basic human structure to the first chapters of Genesis.The command to households there is to be fruitful, a task which he applies to work, procreation, and culture (Cosmos, pp. 117-18). Woman is given to man because “it is not good for him to be alone,” which Wiley understands as meaning that he will not be as fruitful alone (Man, p. 58). [Certainly he will not produce children alone!] For his biblical model, Wiley looks primarily to Abraham’s household which includes not just his wife and son but also many slaves or servants (the Hebrew word is the same). A household is a family but more than a family. A household is a stronghold (Man, p. xvi). Built rightly it can withstand the cataclysm to come.

Part of being built rightly is to have the right structure. There is duty within a household because there is an authority structure.There is also a common goal. Because the sons inherit, they are in a sense working for themselves when they contribute to the family business. They have a stake in the greater enterprise which a slave or hired man does not. Wiley makes a nice connection here to our status within God’s household — we also are heirs and when we work for His Kingdom, we are working for our own good as well (Cosmos, p. 97). 

A household has an economy and a polity and a law. A husband and wife together form the smallest polity (Man, p. 14). Even within such a small unit, a head is needed (Man, p. 15). There is a common good which is worked for and each member has a role to play and something real to contribute, even young children. This is the economy. The law refers to the rules and duties which structure the household interactions. 

The structure within the household Wiley compares to that of a Sovereign and his subjects. The king defends the subjects and they in turn support him (Man, p. 7). The responsibility of the one is defense and of the other is obedience. In this analogy, the husband and father plays the role of king and his wife and children are the subjects. Working towards a common goal — which bringing one’s work home again allows — helps cement these authority structures (Man, p. 71). Within that structure, everyone has a role to play: “In a justly ordered house there are roles to assign; but we should also exercise wisdom when working with people and their idiosyncrasies” (Man, p. 70). The family business, whatever it is, gives everyone a role since it provides more work to go around. Of course, there is other work to do as well. Wiley seems very much in favor of homeschooling (Man, p. 45), but there are of course other jobs that need done to make a household run smoothly as well. I will say for Wiley that he seems to value everyone’s contribution, men and women, adults and children. Wiley does favor traditional sex roles, though his argument is not from Scripture but from nature — the traditional roles work well because men and women have natural strengths and weaknesses (Man, p. 46). Children, too, are contributors to the household and Wiley argues that we would have more children if we valued them for their economic and labor contributions (Man, p. 61).

The household is indeed an important biblical concept. Though Wiley makes it a cornerstone of his schema, his conception of it is ill-defined. He seems to imply that all people should be part of households but he does not address how this happens. Singleness, for Wiley, is not an ideal choice.Though he references the biblical text in which the Apostle Paul seems to praise singles as better able to serve God, he does not seem to accept this principle but to be rather dismissive of it, saying that:

“Rather than challenge [the choice to opt out of family life], or even question it, many evangelicals, especially in coastal cities, justify it, citing 1 Corinthians 7 and Paul’s reflections on the advantages he enjoyed as an unmarried apostle.” (Cosmos p. 8) 

Even if singles were to join themselves to households, it is not clear what role they would play. Abraham’s household which included many servants/slaves is Wiley’s model and yet when he discusses the household he speaks as if every man should be the head of a household. There is no place for workers in his schema (as we shall see when we look at his economic views). Yet big households don’t run without labor. If you are to have a successful family business, you will need eventually to hire people beyond your spouse and children. Wiley’s model seems to necessitate and yet disparage those who work for others.

Wiley does not address those households mentioned in the New Testament. In many ways, these would strengthen his argument. Often we see households operating, and being saved, as a unit. There is certainly much here for us independent, individualistic Amercians to think about. But there are also some ideas which may not fit well in Wiley’s schema. We see, for instance, women as the head of households in the New Testament. (The roles of men and women within the household will be discussed further below.)

On  . . .  the Household Economy

The problem Wiley sees in modern society is that all these parts of the household have broken down. There is no head and so there is no law. A major focus is the lack of an economy. As people began to work outside the home more and more, there was no common purpose for the family and thus nothing to tie its members together. As an antidote Wiley urges each household to build its own economy. What this looks like practically speaking is owning a means of production and working for oneself: “Productive property gives the household economy something to work on together, something to offer the world in exchange for a living” (Man, p. 30).  To work for another he calls “wage slavery” (Man, pp. 40ff, 116), a loaded term if ever there was one. “Here is the truth: if you do not own productive property you work for someone who does. Ownership is freedom and wage earners are not owners. It is just that simple”(Man, p. 39). By essentially establishing a family business, the household decreases its dependence on the larger societal system but also gives its members a reason to once again work together. 

“The goal is to bring your work home with you — to make the household the center of productive enterprise once again. This can mean bringing members of your household into the venture at some point” (Man, p. 42). Beyond working out of the home, Wiley also advocates other practices which make one less dependent on the border economy, from gardening to homeschooling to a certain kind of estate planning.

It is odd actually to read these books in the midst of 2020, a time of pandemic and unrest, when many have lost their jobs, stability and possibly their health. It is odd, but it is also instructive. I suppose we all evaluate things based on our own experience. For me, my husband spent some years working as a “freelancer” (something Wiley praises) though he is now once again working for a (relatively) big company. He has also worked with and for friends who have started their own businesses. I have been in the craft world and know many people who make and sell goods as a way to support themselves. I have to say any kind of working for yourself is tough and when the hard times have hit, as they have in 2020, these people have taken a big hit.  I am much happier and more secure with my husband working for a big company that has some deep pockets to help it ride out this rough spell than I would be if he were still “freelancing”, or than my friends are who work for themselves. [It is actually quite heartbreaking to read their stories.]

Wiley says that self-employment brings freedom and security and that working for a wage is slavery (Man, p. 40). I would say that is not necessarily the case. As I would think anyone who owns their own business would say, there is a lot of “slavery” involved in that as well. You cannot walk away from it. You cannot go on vacation easily. There are lots of ways we are bound and constrained in life and working for oneself is often less certain and more constricting. Wiley does acknowledge that there are trade offs, but comes down firmly on the side of owning one’s own business: “Most people today depend on the corporate economy to maintain their freedom from the demands of self-employment and business ownership. But the price of that freedom is wage slavery.” (Man, p. 129) Yet those who work for themselves are still in many ways dependent upon other people. You need customers to patronize your business and to buy your goods or services. When a crisis like COVID comes and the economy shuts down and people have less money, those with small businesses are hit hardest. There are different kinds of crises of course, but in the current one, the person working for a large company is a lot more likely to still have an income than the small businessman.

Wiley starts with an economic assumption — that to work for someone else for a wage is akin to slavery. He equates freedom with ownership and minimizes other obligations and risks that come with owning one’s own business. I would add that in doing so he also minimizes the difference between actual slavery in which one person owns another and simply having a job one can walk away from. In the words of Ishmael, narrator of Moby Dick:

“Who aint [sic] a slave? Tell me that. Well, then, however the old sea-captains may order me about — however they may thump and punch me about, I have the satisfaction of knowing it is all right; that everybody else is one way or other served in much the same way — either in a physical or metaphysical point of view, that is; and so the universal thump is passed round, and all hands should rub each other’s shoulder-blades, and be content.” (Herman Melville, Moby Dick)

Side bar: As I have said, Wiley doesn’t spend a lot of time on theology as such but he does occasionally touch on the topic. In discussing the roles of people within the household, he dares a comparison to the roles within the Godhead:

“In the Trinity, each of the persons is equally God, yet each has a function within an ordered hierarchy. The Son obeys the Father, but the Father does not take orders from the Son. The Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son, but the Father and the Son do not proceed from the Spirit. By using the Trinity as a model for understanding human hierarchies, people are free to honor those above them without degrading themselves. And those in authority can honor those beneath them without any loss of authority.” (Man, p. 21). 

Though it is not completely clear how Wiley would draw the lines here, this sounds a lot like the heresy known as Eternal Submission of the Son (ESS) or Eternal Functional Subordination (EFS). By either name, this heresy says that in eternity (and not just during Jesus’ time on earth) the Son has been and will continue to be subordinate to the Father. The problem with this idea is that it makes the Son less than the Father and thus inserts a difference within the Godhead, ultimately making the Son less God than the Father is. For more on this topic, I would refer you to the Reformed Brotherhood and The Aquila Report

On . . .  Marriage and Headship

In his second book, Wiley addresses the biblical commands for a husband to love his wife and a wife to submit to her husband. Here he says that submission is a stumbling block for many but that it should be something to be proud of because in submitting, one is playing their part within the larger order (Cosmos, p. 108). His argument grates a little because it emphasizes the command to wives to submit and largely ignores the command to the husband to love. I think he could actually make a much stronger argument if he were to appeal as well to the commands for Christians to submit to one another. In a context in which submission flows in many directions and everyone has those they submit to, the whole thing becomes more palatable to modern sensibilities and highlights as well the ordered schema Wiley proposes.

When it comes to arguing for the husband as the head of the household, it is not to the Scriptures that Wiley turns. His arguments on this point come from what we might call natural law or perhaps just good old-fashioned common sense. In order to lead and judge, he says, the head of the house must be able to distance himself from the other members of the household. A mother, he says, is not able emotionally to do this (Man, p. 75). Physical strength is also a factor: “When it comes to household order, might must serve right. In the vast majority of households the father is the best equipped for the job” (Man, p. 75; emphasis original). The leader must have what he calls “gravitas” which we might define as the weight of authority. One with gravitas commands respect by his mere presence. This, Wiley says, comes more naturally to men: “Here’s something else egalitarians don’t like about gravitas: it is easier for men to acquire it than women, Physical strength is a big reason, but not the only one — height helps — as does a deeper voice” (Man, p. 78). As he defines it later, this gravitas comes down to a willingness to walk away if need be (Man, p. 81), not something that I would consider a good quality in a husband and father. The rule that the man of the house exerts, for Wiley, is one of power and the ability to bring physical judgment to bear (Man, p. 79). And, as he makes clear, the law of the house is to be one of justice, not primarily of love (Man p. 68). 

In terms of how a man is to lead, Wiley argues that the man of the house should be above all just. He must not lord it over his “subjects” but must have self-mastery. In order to do so a man must follow the command to — here Wiley appeals to the wisdom of the oracle at Delphi — “know thyself” (Man, p. 82). 

There is an assumption here that might makes right. The man is the head of the household, not because this is what the Scriptures dictate, but because of his physical, and to a lesser degree his emotional, characteristics. One is left wondering, if a wife were the physically stronger party if it would be okay for her to be the head.

Biblical ideas and models of leadership are not discussed. The command to the husband to love his wife is downplayed and biblical servant-leadership seems to be completely unconsidered. Instead, a man attains leadership because of his physical superiority and maintains it through a combination of physical power, economic savvy, and emotional distance. 

Sidebar: As has been alluded to above, the man of the house is also a mediator between the household and the rest of the cosmos within which it is nested (remember those Russian nesting dolls?): “In order to honor the past, or what is above, people in your house will need to pass through you to do so. It is simply a matter of where you are in relationship to these things. You come between . . . You are the priest of your house. You are the first of many layers.” (Man, p. 95). Here again we teeter on the edge of a particular heresy. And again it is not completely clear where Wiley stands theologically but what he has to say sounds very much like the Family Church movement — good words that nonetheless convey a bad idea. Simply put this theology posits a kind of series of “umbrellas of protection.”  A man’s wife and kids are under his umbrella of protection. They are safe as long as they stay there. The man in turn represents them to the larger world, including both the church leadership and God Himself. Practically speaking if a wife has a question, she is to go to her husband and does not have direct access to her elders. That can be quite problematic of course if she has issues with her husband. But even more problematic is that the husband/father is made the mediator for his family whereas Scripture tells us that there is one Mediator, Christ (1 Tim. 2:5). For more on this topic see  Theology Gals.   

On . . .  Parenting

Wiley doesn’t have a lot to say directly on parenting. He does tell one rather disturbing story from his own teenage years in which he decided he no longer had to obey his mother. In the heat of argument she tried to slap him, he ducked and she ended up injured. For Wiley the point of this story is that the father, who is bigger and more powerful, is necessary to keep the child in line (Man, p. 67). The entire dynamic here is again one of might makes right. It is sad to me that Wiley endured this as a child, but it is even sadder that it is still the dynamic he expects as an adult. There is no talk here of training, no mention of sin or of guilt, and nothing about addressing the child’s heart attitude. 

In a schema in which there must be one leader in each household, it is unclear how a child transitions to adulthood and at what point new households are formed. Because the person your child marries essentially comes into the family business, Wiley is in favor of, if not arranged marriages, at least parents having a strong say in whom their children marry (Man, p. 131). Children (presumably fairly grown ones) may also be exiled from the household. While he cautions patience, Wiley also says children must earn their inheritance and some are simply incorrigible and must be disowned: “[I]t may be necessary to cut a child off completely” (Man, p. 132).   

Side bar: Wiley also speaks to how children should address adults:

“All other adults should be ma’am and sir. Should it happen that some adult eschews such respect and says to your child something like, “Mr. Johnson is my father — call me Bob!” you ought to take him aside and let him know the ground rules with your children. If Bob can’t handle adulthood, don’t let your children spend time with him.” (Man, p. 97)

I have a couple of thoughts here. Ma’am and sir are fairly cultural. We had a family in our church for a while whose kids ma’am-ed and sir-ed everyone. They were from the south and it came naturally from them. My son picked up the habit but it did not come naturally to him. When he said ma’am to a dear sweet 90-something year old friend of ours, she was horrified and thought she had offended him and began apologizing profusely. In New England, ma’am and sir don’t always sound polite (though Wiley is in Connecticut so I don’t know why he doesn’t see this). I teach my kids that attitude in how they speak to adults is the most important thing. You can say ma’am and sir and still be sassy. You can not say them and still convey respect. When I told my teens about this passage, they thought it was rather rude not to call Bob, Bob, if that is what he prefers. To cut Bob out of one’s life seems cruel. Maybe he is a good Christian man at church whose influence would benefit your kids. Maybe he is not, but maybe your family’s influence would benefit him. 

On  . . .  Government

The household is the smallest institution and the government is the largest but in between there are others (Man, p. 114). It is the biggest institutions that Wiley is most critical of, including the government and large corporations: “[P]eople build institutions for shelter. But here is another thing: when it comes to institutions, bigger isn’t always better. Bigger usually comes with hidden costs” (Man, p. 62). 

While he acknowledges that a “[j]ust civil authority is a good thing” (Man, p. 103), Wiley does not seem to find much good in the government. They serve their own interests: “Governments are Janus-faced things, looking after your interests with one face, while pursuing their own with the other.” (Man, p. 103) The bigger and more powerful the government is, the worse it is: “The state continues to grow and centralize, technology tracks us (and increasingly it is used to manipulate us), progressive multinational corporations standardize us and commodify us, popular media seek to indoctrinate us and addict us, and state-run education and healthcare are eliminating private rivals so as to make us ever more dependent on government largess.” (Cosmos p. 115).

Not surprisingly a major function of government, as Wiley sees it, is to protect private property as well as to preserve order (Man, p. 104). In general, “householders should favor limited government” (Man, p. 108). He is not big on the welfare state, saying it undermines the household, and argues that child-care and eldercare should both return to the home (Man, p. 110). Though he is very careful not to advocate disobeying one’s government, Wiley gives specific advice on how to (legally) keep from paying too much in taxes (Man, pp. 108ff). It should be noted that most of his vitriol is reserved for big government. He advocates being involved in one’s local community and sees the value of local government (Man, p. 106). 

Again we see that there is a particular view espoused, and it is one that is fairly anti-government. This is not the biblical view. The Scriptures tell us that, however its powers may be abused, government is a God-ordained institution which is given as a blessing for mankind. Even under one of the most egregious governments known, Paul is able to say that governments are given by God for man’s good (Rom. 13:1ff). 

On  . . the Church

The Church is also a kind of household. As microcosms, our households bear witness to God’s: “Your household can even be a witness to the household of God by the way it works.” (Man, p. 134) In the end times, our households will not continue as they are but there still will be a Household: “Now, the bridge that connects the houses we live in today, and the one we will dwell in someday, is the Church. It is the witness to and even an inchoate embodiment of the eschatological household.” (Man, p. 98) 

But the Church is also a contemporary institution. Though quite skeptical of large secular institutions, Wiley does say that: “Households can’t stand alone.” They can and should unite with other households. In order to do so, they must find common ground. This common ground Wiley calls moral goodness. The Church is the mediating institution which promotes moral goodness (Man, p. 122). For a pastor, he has surprisingly little to say beyond this on the role of the church or its relationship to the individual households which comprise it. 

While there is some grand language about it, there is little practical discussion of how individual households relate to the Church. I would argue on the contrary that, while it is a great blessing to have one’s biological family as part of one’s spiritual family, for Christians the spiritual family, i.e. the Church, is the primary unit. This understanding helps resolve some of the problems which Wiley’s understanding of the household raises. Singles, who are not otherwise  part of a household, have a place within God’s household. The Church itself should not be viewed as a confederation of separate households but as the household of God (1 Tim. 3:15). Nor is it bound together by “moral goodness.” It is rather our union in Christ which unites us. 

On  . . . Virtue

Though he does not spend a lot of time discussing it directly, virtue is an important subject for Wiley. This is how he ends his first book:  “[I]f your household can retain its independence through moral virtue, like Noah and his house, your heirs may someday step into in [sic] a world wiped clean.” (Man, p. 136) There is an implication here that just as Noah’s family, out of all his contemporaries, was saved because he was a righteous man, so our families too will be delivered because of our virtue. Elsewhere he says: “If the members of your household are virtuous, then even if they lose everything, they stand a good chance of recovering their fortunes, given time” (Man, p. 125). There is an element of prosperity gospel in this — we are rewarded for our virtue with material success. 

There is no doubt that for Wiley the primary virtue to be cultivated is piety, that right relation to others within the household and the cosmos (which seems to come down more than anything else to submission to those who hold a position of authority over one). How then does one cultivate piety or any other virtue? Wiley says: “But virtue is the most difficult thing of all to give someone, because it isn’t really ours to give. It has to be drawn out of the person himself.” (Man, p. 134) This is an interesting statement. We have seen that Wiley relies fairly heavily on classical sources, especially Roman ones, and I detect the flavor of classical thought here as well (See this post on David Hicks’ Norms and Nobility in which I discuss how the classical approach known as dialectic assumes that knowledge is within man and must be drawn out). Wiley seems to say that virtue is something inherent within us that must be brought out. This is not biblical Christianity. Goodness is defined by the character of God. As fallen people, we have no inherent goodness unless and until He redeems us. 

Drawing Some Conclusions

There is a lot of material in these two short books of Wiley’s and much to respond to. Above all I would say that what Wiley gives us is not a theological treatise but an economic and to a lesser extent a social one.  Though his books have an eschatological tone, the crises he sees and solutions he proposes are very much of this world. The heart of his theory is an economic view which says that freedom, protection, and deliverance come through ownership and work. The end goal is to have sufficient financial independence to withstand economic and societal crises in this world. There is little here that is spiritual. The overall outlook is quite materialistic in that it speaks to and about the physical world and its problems. 

In his sources, Wiley as often as not turns to non-Christian, even pagan, classical sources.  When he does use biblical sources, he does not look at the whole counsel of Scripture on a subject. For instance, his take on households is based on Abraham and Noah but does not consider how households are spoken of in the New Testament. Even when there are good biblical arguments, eg. for the husband/father as the head of the household, Wiley turns to non-biblical arguments. 

I don’t want to imply that there is nothing good here. Wiley’s critiques of our modern society and especially of how certain policies undermine the family are on point. His argument for the cosmos as a greater structure which has order, particularly as contrasted with modern views of a completely materialistic “cosmos,” are also good. 

The bottom line on both Man of the House and The Household and the War for the Cosmos is that they are promoting a particular view of what a household, and particularly the work of that household, should look like. While it may be a position some Christians take, it is not an inherently Christian position nor is it the only way Christians can see the issue. Christ’s work on the cross, His incarnation and His act of redemption on our behalf make absolutely no difference to Wiley’s theory. 

Nebby

[1] Man of the House: A Handbook for Building a Shelter that Will Last in a World That is Falling Apart (Eugene, OR: Resource Publication, 2017)

The Household and the War for the Cosmos (Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 2019)

Books Read: September 2020

Dear Reader,

I have a short list this month but it includes one long review so I thought I would go ahead and publish it.

September 2020

The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope — Another long audio book finished. This is my third Trollope novel and while it was not bad it was probably my least favorite thus far. The length is perhaps part of the issue; this is certainly a long one. It reminds me a lot of the other long book I listened to this year: George Eliot’s Middlemarch. Both are set in Britain in the 1800s and feature lots of couples and their romantic angst as well as some cultural/political issues. There was a character in this one who reminded me very much of a modern political figure (read it and guess who) which added some interest value. There were lots of love triangles in this one, particularly featuring a woman torn between a man she is attracted to/loves and one that seems more suitable. The triangles didn’t always resolve the same way and I wasn’t always pleased with the end results. Not the best book but not the worst. I wouldn’t rush to read it but it was pleasant enough.

The Fear Factor: How One Emotion Connects Altruists, Psychopaths, & Everyone In-Between by Abigail Marsh — I had heard Marsh speak about her work two or three times before and wanted to get the long version. Marsh is a professor of psychology and neuroscience and a researcher in those areas. Her work is fascinating and there is a lot to think about here. I plan to write  a longer post on it once I think of how to respond. For now I will say that Marsh approaches her subject from a purely scientific point of view. She leaves no space for the spiritual here and so her take would not be that of a Christian. Yet her subject is very much about good and evil and where they come from and how we respond to them. So I think there is a lot to wrestle with here, but I will have more to say on that in the future. It is a good book so I hope you read it and let me know what you think about it. 

A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf — Once again a yard sale find that I had never read but thought I should. The lady I bought it from was most anxious that I should and hard-pressed to part with the volume. If you have not read it, perhaps you like I will come to Woolf’s work with some skepticism, some expectation of liberal things that one must disapprove of. If I could sum up A Room of One’s Own in one sentence it would be this: I liked it. It may not all be good but quite a lot of it is and it was easy to read and entertaining. I honestly didn’t even know if the book was fiction or nonfiction when I picked it up. It is if possible something in between, a kind of long essay with lots of imaginative portions. It is about literature and why women haven’t written more of it and how it is maybe different when they do. 

As we turn to content, let me say that Woolf wrote A Room of One’s Own in 1929, after WWI but before WWII, and after women’s suffrage, but not by much. I have learned recently that feminist was not always a bad word. There have been various waves of the feminist movement and some have been better than others. Woolf comes before the more destructive ways, hell-bent on birth control and abortion.  Many of her criticisms of why women have not, historically, had the time or freedom to write are true. In today’s world, with its radical dismissal or blending of genders, Woolf’s work is quaintly old-fashioned. She does not say women are better than men and she does not say they are equal. Her take is actually that the two are different and unique from one another but that they need each other. “[T]he nerves that feed the brain,” she tells us, “would seem to differ in men and women” (p. 81). She argues that we all have, or should have, some of each gender in us which could be taken quite wrongly in modern terms but I don’t think she meant it as we would today. There is also a portion which could be taken as referring to lesbianism but we don’t  need to take it that way either. Really I found her take on gender quite orthodox and refreshing. Modern Christian writers I have read have implied that women have unique contributions to make but have struggled and failed to tell me what those contributions are and how they are different. Woolf, I think, does a much better job of this. (See my booklist on marriage and gender issues here). Yet there is also a level on which we must not think of our gender in writing. Certainly in our own day there is too much focus on gender and sex as defining characteristics by which one must identify oneself, but even in the early 1900s Woolf complained that the women’s suffrage movement caused people to focus too much on gender and to polarize themselves in ways that were unnecessary and detrimental to their writing (p. 108). 

I also loved what she had to say about books and literature (see also this post). Consider the following:

“Fiction here is likely to contain more truth than fact.” (p. 4)

On the place of each piece of fiction within the stream of human thought:

“For books continue each other, in spite of our habit of judging them separately.” (p. 84)

On the enduring and transformative power of literature:

“The wonder is that any book so composed holds together for more than a year or two, or can possibly mean to the English reader what it means for the Russian or for the Chinese.” (p. 75) 

“Thus, when one takes a sentence of Mr. B into the mind it falls plump to the ground – dead; but when one take a sentence of Coleridge into the mind, it explodes and gives birth to all kinds of other ideas, and that is the sort of writing of which one can say that is has the secret of perpetual life.” (p. 105)

“For the reading of these books seems to perform a curious couching operation on the senses; one sees more intensely afterwards; the world seems bared of its covering and given an intenser life.” (p. 114)

If that isn’t inspiration for more reading, I don’t know what is.

Nebby

Books Read: July-August 2020

Dear Reader,

I have been slacking off in my reports on what I have read so this time you get two months (plus one extra book) in one chunk.

July 2020

The Power of Play by David Elkind — A modern, secular scholar’s take on early childhood and the role of play. Though we would start with different presuppositions, I like a lot of what Elkind has to say and find some of his ideas reminiscent of Charlotte Mason’s. See this post for more.

The Death of Ivan Ilych by Leo Tolstoy — Sometimes you just feel the need for Russian literature. That’s how I felt this month but I didn’t want to take on one of the longer books (and have already read Crime and Punishment which is fairly short many times). This short work by Tolstoy (so well-known for lengthy tomes) was perfect. It is an engaging story of  a man who discovers he is dying and focuses on what he thinks and feels. I am sure there could be a lot of deep spiritual meaning there as well (and there is a clear spiritual turning point towards the end). It could make you think or you could take it as it is, a poignant story about the death of an individual. I enjoyed this one. 

Theories of Childhood by Carol Garhart Mooney — In my effort to become more informed on theories of child development, I picked up this slim volume. It is intended for those who work with young children to give them a brief introduction to some popular theories and how they can be applied practically in a daycare or preschool setting. It is very clearly written and easy to understand and makes a great introduction even if you are not in the business (so to speak). 

Giants in the Nursery by David Elkind — Another good review of the major thinkers in developmental psychology. 

August

The Household and the War for the Cosmos and Man of the House by C.R. Wiley — A friend asked me to read Man of the House. I walked away from it a little confused as to some of Wiley’s ideas and so decided I had to read the book to which it is actually an addendum: The Household and the War for the Cosmos. The short story on these is that though they are by a pastor, I find them not inherently Christian and really more about a particular economic point of view than anything else. The long story can be found in my review (coming soon). 

A Brave New World by Aldous Huxley — It seemed like a good time for some dystopia. It is not my favorite genre but I have read Animal Farm and 1984 and Handmaid’s Tale and Fahrenheit 451.  Of all of these, I found A Brave New World to be probably the least interesting and well-written. Animal Farm is my favorite because it is clever and funny but also partly because it is the cleanest. Which brings up one big criticism: why does sex have to be such a big part of all dystopias? There are probably good reasons rooted deep in the human psyche but it breeds an explicitness I just don’t enjoy much. Mostly, however, I just didn’t find that Brave New World had a whole lot to say. 

Scale How Meditations by Charlotte Mason (ed. Benjamin Bernier) — I have a couple of posts coming on on this volume of theology from Charlotte Mason. These are her meditations on the first part of the Gospel of John. I read them because I had made statements about her theology and was eager to know how on target I was (turns out to be fairly similar to what I had derived from her other writings). Overall I find her to be Arminian and there are parts of her theology. Especially her soteriology, which I don’t agree with. But her faith shines through and it is hard to doubt her true belief and some passages are simply wonderful. 

September (a partial month but I couldn’t wait to tell you about this one)

Know and Tell by Karen Glass — This book is so good I have nothing at all bad to say about it (and that is pretty rare for me). Karen Glass is a familiar name in Charlotte Mason homeschooling circles and I have not always agreed with her positions but this book on narration is wonderful. I think this is going to be my go-to must-read book for anyone considering homeschooling, whether CM or not, or at all interested in education. She gives the reasons for narration and how and why it works and lots of practical advice on how to do it, whether you are starting from the beginning or jumping in with an older child. Though what she describes is similar to what we have done in high school, I really wish I had had her advice on how to transition to other forms of writing in high school much earlier one. One note: I got the Kindle edition (cheaply) but it only works on some devices. I had to read it on my phone but couldn’t get it on my Kindle or laptop. 

What have you been reading?

Nebby

Sin & Theories of Child Development

Dear Reader,

I recently discussed David Elkind’s Power of Play (Da Capo Press, 2007) with a particular eye to how his views on child development coincide with those of Charlotte Mason. Today I would like to return to the book but with a different emphasis.

Though I like a lot of what Elkind has to say, we do come at these issues from different places and this raises some questions. These have mainly to do with how we view rule-following and perhaps especially rule-breaking.

Elkind argues that children below a certain age are incapable of understanding rules. He is not an unschooler (speaking here of unschooling as a philosophy which says adults should not impose their will on children). He does believe that children do not always do what they should and that they need limits (p. 181). He also gives examples of disciplining children with humor, a lot of which comes down to redirection rather than discipline as such, which I find somewhat charming and which I think a lot of parents could benefit from. Yet his understanding is not mine because it does not include the category of sin.

As Christians we believe that children of all ages, even infants, are moral beings who are responsible to their God. They are capable of faith but they are also morally responsible for their actions, even for their thoughts and desires. In my denomination, parents promise to teach their children of their sinful nature, and my observation of humanity tells me that, though this sounds a bit depressing, it is one of the most important lessons every individual needs to learn.

So the major question I come away from this with is: How do we deal with sin as sin and yet account for the child’s development? Or do we reject secular theories of child development because they do not account for such things? (In this post I discussed the very un-Christian basis of much of the social sciences and how we should approach such secular scholarship.)

I don’t have all the answers but there are some random thoughts:

  • Ignorance of the law is no excuse. As reformed Christians, we believe that even infants in utero are sinful people (Ps. 51:5). One’s ability to understand the law of God and to recognize the rightness or wrongness of one’s actions is really irrelevant to whether they are sinful or not. On the flip side, I would add that God also saves His people before they are able to recognize their own sinfulness and, in the case of those who die young or who are mentally challenged, they may be saved even if they never are able to articulate an understanding of these things. This is because God’s saving of us is not dependent upon our own actions nor is it dependent upon our belief as a prerequisite.
  • Elkind speaks of children’s understanding of rules, both moral rules and the rules of games, as dependent on their developing reason but he does not deny that they have some sense of right and wrong at an earlier stage. If anything, he describes younger children as having stricter moral codes. In games, “[t]hey assume that the rules were created a long time ago by adults and cannot be changed” (p. 154). When asked to choose which is worse: accidentally breaking a whole stack of dishes or breaking one plate on purpose, young children always say whatever broke most is worse and they do not take into account intentions (p. 155). As adults we may evaluate the situation differently, but we must acknowledge that these young children do have a moral sense. If anything it is often the case that adults attribute too much to circumstances and intentions and thereby minimize sin.
  • Which brings us to — there is a way in which we are told to be more like children in our faith (Matt. 18:3). This is one of those passages which I really wish told us more. I am hesitant to put children on a pedestal; I do not think they are little innocents by any means. Yet there is something about them that we are told to emulate. Perhaps this is one possibility: “Young children are curious about extremes of weather like hurricanes, tornadoes, and earthquakes. In answering children’s questions about this subject, we need to remember their mythic thinking. Young children assume that everything has a purpose” (p. 131). One might argue that we should all be looking for the greater purpose in such events.
  • Elkind argues for the power of games in developing children’s moral sense. “Games provide a set of rules that govern how to behave under certain circumstances” (p. 148). When they play games, particularly games in which they must negotiate the rules with other children (as opposed to games in which adults set the rules), “children are learning to subordinate their personal wishes — not to be chosen It — to the rules of the game” (p. 153). Fantasy role playing also teaches one to put onself in another’s shoes (p. 162). These are very valuable and desirable skills and if games are an easy way to practice not putting oneself first, I say we should play a lot more games.
  • The Bible has a lot to say about disciplining one’s children and, while I do believe that the rod language it uses refers to physical discipline, it is not the case that physical discipline is our only option. Sin is so serious that it is far better to avoid the sin if possible than to discipline after the fact. Elkind’s suggestions on how to parent with humor, though he might not see them that way, provide ways that both parent and child can avoid sin: “When we discipline lightheartedly, we accomplish three important goals. First, we manage our own negative feelings in a positive and constructive way. Second, we provide our children an effective and constructive way of handling their own emotions. Third, we provide a healthy model for parenting for our children to use . . .” (p. 177). Note that there is a temptation for the parent in these situations as well. I suspect most of us who are parents are all too aware of that.
  • I like Elkind’s suggestions. At the same time, I think we need to be careful not to always make sin a joke. If humor and lightheartedness can help us avoid sin, particularly if we can use it to defuse a situation which could turn worse, then it is all well and good. But we also need to communicate that sin is serious and is to be taken seriously. So I do think there is a time for punitive discipline.
  • Charlotte Mason includes habit training in her philosophy of education which, as she uses it, is largely about avoiding sin before it happens as well. We need to be careful not to think that good outward behavior is all we need but at the same time we should not scorn the importance of those good habits, whether they be picking up one’s toys or not snapping an annoying sibling. Elkind’s humor addresses sins once they have happened or are happening. Habit training is a proactive approach that identifies stumbling blocks and seeks to address them before they recur. Both are good and necessary.
  • When the proactive and humorous approaches are not enough, we do need to address sin head-on and we need to identify it as sin and help our children to know that this comes from their hearts and that they cannot will their way out of their own sinful nature. In other words, they need a Savior. And at the same time we need to acknowledge that we are in this together. Our nature and our need is the same as theirs. We hopefully have a little more perspective and insight on it and so we help along those who are further behind, whether due to their youth or spiritual immaturity, but we are all on the same road.

What does all this mean for our theories of child development? It is okay for us as reformed people to say both that children can be too young to understand their sin and that they are still responsible for it. At times, because they have fewer abstract thinking skills, children are often less likely to justify away things that shouldn’t be justified away. Children can be very black-and-white in their thinking (especially about other’s wrongs I have found). So I don’t think we need to automatically conclude that they are in a worse place than we are (and the Scriptures imply that this is not so). But they are immature and we need to make sure that they understand their sinfulness and their need for a Savior. This can and should be done in a compassionate and not a harsh way, as ones who are in the same boat (ark?).

Nebby

 

The Power of Play: Elkind & Mason

Dear Reader,

I first encountered David Elkind through his book The Hurried Child which I was quite pleasantly surprised to like (see this post and this one). More recently I picked up his Power of Play (Da Capo Press, 2007) in which he tackles issues of child development and how learning happens in a more head-on fashion.

Elkind is a secular scholar and an expert in child development. He comes at the issues we will be looking at from a different place than I would, yet there are many similarities in where we end up that I find quite intriguing. Though I have my differences with her I largely follow the ideas of Charlotte Mason, a late 19th/early 20th-century educator. She was a teacher and her ideas of children and their natures come from her experience but also from her Christian faith.

As its name suggests, The Power of Play is a call for the return of play to the lives of children and especially the youngest children. Play, for Elkind, springs from the child’s “inborn disposition for learning, curiosity, imagination, and fantasy” (introduction). “Play is our need to adapt the world to ourselves and create new learning experiences” (p. 3). Though it is play Elkind stresses, he sees it as but one of a triad of drives that all people have. The others are love and work. These three work together. Play, without love and work, “is simply entertainment” (p. 4). There are times as the child grows when one or another of these drives dominates. From birth to age 6 or 7, play is the main thing. In childhood, work dominates and for teens love does. Yet education, at any age, is most effective when all three work together.

Because play is the driving force for infants and young children, their education should be largely self-directed. Elkind does not favor traditional, formal learning before age 6 or 7. From that age on, the child turns more toward work which he defines as adapting to the external world. Education as we know it is then more appropriate, though it should still not be rote memorization. Children, he tells us, want to understand (p. 7). In the teen years love becomes dominant until there is finally an equilibrium between the three in late adolescence (p. 10). For adults, play is still a part of life but tends to come in the form of hobbies.

On the surface, this may not sound much like Charlotte Mason’s philosophy but I do think there are some key connections here. Mason did not incorporate games in her curriculum and found it counter-productive in the long run to make schoolwork into entertainment. I would not call her methods playful. And yet as Elkind discusses play, I do feel there are some profound similarities. Play for Elkind is about creativity, interest, and imagination and all these Mason too incorporated.

Here are some points of connection which I see:

  • Mason would have said that learning does not happen without interest and relationship with the material. So Elkind says, “Formal instruction is work. For it to be effective, play [which includes interest] and love [relationship] need to be made part of the process” (p. 126).
  • A Charlotte Mason education is heavily reliant on books but they are books by people who love their subject matter and communicate their passion for it (aka living books). So Elkind urges parents to share their passions with children (p. 182) and says that teaching is more effective when the teacher shares his or her passions (p. 185).
  • Elkind talks about how children see the world and how they think. It is not in the same way adults do. Because of this “the child may be attending to something quite different than what the adult had in mind” (p. 102). This idea supports narration as it happens in a Charlotte Mason education. When we ask children reading comprehension questions, we ask them to tell us what we think is important. When we ask them to narrate, we let them decide what is important. As parents and educators, this often means that we have to bite our tongues and accept that these are two very different things.
  • And again, following Dewey, Elkind says that we only learn from our experiences when we represent them in some way. By doing so we make them our own (p. 191). This too calls to mind narration in which the child must tell back what he has heard or read, putting it in his own words, putting together his own thoughts, and making unique connections.
  • Elkind says that science begins with observation while experimentation is best introduced later. “Children are natural observers and classifiers” (p. 142). So too Mason kept science in the early years to nature study and used it to build observational skills and a love of creation.
  • Elkind says that rote learning is good for multiplication tables and for memorizing poetry but should not be the primary mode of education (p. 201). I think Mason would have agreed here too.
  • Quoting Smilansky, Elkind says that “‘History, geography and literature are all make-believe'” (p. 211). I love this idea. These subjects can be said to be make-believe because learning them requires imagination. We have to see in our minds what is being talked about. We form our own impressions and on some level again make the subject matter our own. Again, though I don’t have a specific quote to point to, I think Mason would have agreed.
  • Both emphasize the habit of attention. For Mason this is built through short lessons that do not tax the child. Elkind says that young children in particular should be allowed to complete the tasks they have set for themselves. When we interrupt their play, we teach them that their interests are not important and rob them of the power of attention. In the long run this leads to bored, unmotivated children. The emphasis is a little different here, but there is common ground in the value of building the habit of attention, and I think that Mason might have agreed that when children set a task for themselves it is better not to interrupt.
  • Though their brains are growing quickly, Elkind says, little children are not sponges. They take time to absorb information and throwing a lot of information at them will backfire. Mason did not throw facts at young children (as certain other approaches **cough, classical, cough** do). Having an interest in and relationship with the material was more important to her.
  • Both would delay formal education until around age 6 or 7. Elkind says that young children cannot learn to follow rules or complex verbal instructions until about age 6. Even though a younger child may learn their letters and some sight words eagerly, they may not be ready for formal reading lessons until later.
  • Elkind’s description of letting children play without adult interference but with some degree of oversight sounds a lot like Mason’s idea of “masterly inactivity.”

I have some other big thoughts that arose in my reading of The Power of Play but as they change the topic a bit I think I will save them for another post. My short take on Elkind’s book is that it is easy to read, enjoyable, and well worth the time. Though he comes to issues of child development from a different starting place, I am pleased to find that many of the techniques he ends up with are not so far apart from Mason’s (and mine as far as they echo hers).

Nebby

 

Books Read: June 2020

Dear Reader,

Quarantine continues (to some extent) though I don’t think I’ve been as productive on the reading lately.  Here is what I finished in June:

Books Read June 2020

Little Fuzzy by H. Beam Piper — After having finally finished Middlemarch (see “Books Read May 2020”), I wanted a short audiobook. My daughter recommended this one and it was a pure joy. Set in a future time when humans are colonizing other planets, a new species is discovered (the fuzzies) and problems and debates ensue. There is a lot about what makes a species sentient. If I thought more about it, this is probably a pretty deep book. But it is also fun and charming.  It would be a good read-aloud for kids from maybe mid-elementary level and up. There are sequels as well. 

Recovering From Biblical Manhood and Womanhood by Aimee Byrd — A controversial book on gender roles in the church. Byrd has some good points and overall I agree with her position but they get lost in this book. I was particularly disturbed by her use of biblical texts. Read my full review here

Riddle of the Sands by Erskine Childers — This is an older adventure story. I picked it up at a yard sale and it was a lovely edition and the series title was something like “world’s best mysteries” so I thought, “I should read this.” It wasn’t an awful book but I found the mystery a little flat and there was so much — I mean really so much — that was about sailing and the German coastline. Honestly, if you love boating read this book; if not, skip it. 

How Does Sanctification Work? by David Powlison — I picked up this book (via Kindle) because someone had mentioned the author and I had never heard of him. Of his various titles this seemed like the most interesting to me. It is a short book for the layperson (though good for clergy too) on, as its title says, how sanctification works. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the theology is relatively solid and there are indications the author is reformed. Powlison has a very balanced view of the things that come into our lives to change us for the better, always placing the work of God at the foundation. Some of his points were well-taken. I think I needed to hear that people don’t all need the same thing and that you can’t overwhelm them with everything at once (I tend to overwhelm people).  I liked as well when he talked about the balance of good theology with reaching out to the emotions (I’m not saying that as well as he did but, hey, you should read the book yourself anyway). In the end, I had some disappointment. I have a few people in my life that really need change and that I feel like I keep saying the same things to and beating my head against  rock with and I guess part of me hoped that there would be more to tell me just what it is that finally makes people change their lives. But that may be unfair as a criticism of Powlison because, sadly, it may just not be that simple.

The Hurried Child by David Elkind — An older book on child development and how we in the modern world are messing our kids up. Though my copy was the third edition (I think) it was still a bit dated. A lot of the points are good though. I was particularly intrigued by Elkind’s theory of how socialization happens. Read my full review here. I have also picked up some of his other books.

What have you been reading?

Nebby

Book Review: Recovering From Biblical Manhood & Womanhood

Dear Reader,

I thought 2019 was my year to read books on gender-related issues but apparently the trend continues. When I heard about Aimee Byrd’s Recovering From Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Reflective, 2020) I knew I had to add it to my list. I “know” Aimee Byrd from her work on the Mortification of Sin podcast and  I like a lot of what she has to say so I went into this book with a fairly positive attitude.

I had also heard two interviews with Byrd discussing the book before I began reading, one on Mortification of Spin and one on Theology Gals. From these I know that Byrd was encouraged by her editor to use the current title for the book (which is somewhat inflammatory) and to include a fair amount responding directly to the positions of Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood and other more conservative complementarians. The result, in my opinion, is that this book really has two main thrusts, one related more directly to gender issues in the church and one focused more on discipleship in the church with an emphasis on the discipleship of women. From listening to her regularly I know that the latter is a particular interest for Byrd and I think that there is something valuable here that needs to be said. However, the overall effect of this two-pronged approach, for me as the reader, was to make it a bit of a disjointed book.

Byrd’s title, as I said, is provocative. It plays on the title of Piper and Grudem’s Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. In the discussion of gender within the church, there are two main camps, the egalitarians and the complementarians. The former, as their name suggests, argue for equality in roles between the genders. That is, what men can do in the church (pastor a church, preach, etc.) women can do. The latter argue for a distinction in roles, saying that men and women while equal in value have different roles which complement each other. There is a wing of the complementarian camp which takes things a step farther and argues that the roles of men and women, being those of authority and submission respectively, are eternal ones. This applies in the here and now in the belief that all women should submit in some way to all men and is even read back into the Trinity in the belief that God the Son always submitted to God the Father. This is the position known as Eternal Functional Submission (EFS) or the Eternal Submission of the Son (ESS). Because this wing has to a large extent taken over complementarianism, Byrd does not use the term for herself (p. 121). Neither is she an egalitarian. She does recognize separate roles within the church for men and women, reserving ordination for men. This is pretty much where I would place myself in the debate as well, both before and after reading this book.

Byrd’s second major thrust, and from my understanding her original purpose in writing the book, is to argue for the discipleship of women within the church. Personally, I have never experienced much in terms of being looked down upon for being female within the church so I don’t come to these issues from as raw a place as others might.  I understand, however, that this is an issue for others and I do think it is something we need to be conscious of. Byrd’s message — that discipleship is the work of the church (as opposed to the parachurch) and that women as well as men pass on their faith and need to grow in their faith and therefore need to be discipled is a good one (p. 161). I particularly liked a point she made that even in our own private study we interpret the Bible not on our own but within an interpretive community (p. 164). If we are not educated in our faith and in how to do this, how can we even begin to read our Bibles?

Looking at these two big issues, I may not like the way the book is put together and find their juxtaposition a little awkward, but I am mostly on board with Byrd’s opinions on both. The biggest problem I have with Recovering is not actually with either of the big points Byrd is trying to make but with her use of Scripture. I should say as we get into this section, in case you are not a regular reader here, that my own training is in biblical Hebrew [1].

The first part of the book addresses what Byrd calls “gynocentric interruptions” within the biblical text. There is not a clear definition given for this term. As Byrd uses it, it seems to refer to those passages and stories in which females are the main characters. There are a couple of assumptions behind this phrase. The first is that the majority of the Bible, because it was written by men and because men are the main characters, is androcentric. The second is that stories which prominently feature females give us a female point of view. For Byrd, these female-centered stories are interruptions in what is primarily a male-oriented book. Her thesis for this first chunk of the book is summed up as follows: “Scripture incorporates the female voice in an androcentric text” (p. 92).

I object two both halves of this statement. I do not think Scripture is inherently androcentric and I do not think that those texts which feature females interrupt in any way or necessarily give us the female perspective. It puzzles me quite a bit why Byrd seems to accept the premise that the Bible is androcentric. Yes, men wrote it but they did so under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. It is God’s Word more than man’s. And, yes, men are the major characters in most of the narratives, but again male characters does not automatically imply male perspective.

There is another assumption going on behind the scenes here. It is quite a modern one that says that I cannot know the experiences and feelings of someone from a different group. It is the kind of mindset that gives us phrases like “cultural appropriation.” I do not think that I cannot related to a story just because it features male characters. I do think that as human beings we are capable of putting ourselves in one another’s shoes and that is quite a wonderful thing.

Yet there is something to the idea that the stories featuring women stand out within the biblical text. The world of the Bible was a patriarchal one. That is a historical fact. Men had power and authority and status that women did not. So it should not surprise us that men are the primary actors in biblical narrative. In another book I reviewed recently, Michael Lefebvre’s The Liturgy of Creation, the author discusses how the Bible treats science. His argument is that the Scriptures accept the scientific understanding of the day and do not challenge it, a fact which is often disconcerting to us modern readers.  I think something similar is going on here: the Bible does not directly challenge the patriarchal traditions of the time in which it was written.  That does not mean that it accepts or approves those traditions but simply that its main goal is not to challenge and overturn them.

What is striking within all this is that there are so many stories in which women do play a pivotal role. I would argue that these stories do not stand alone, however, but are part of a larger dynamic. There are also quite a number of stories in which God works through others who would not have been seen by their society as the chosen few. We see this particularly in how God often chooses non-firstborn sons. Think of Jacob and Joseph and David. Again and again God shows us that He does not choose based on the world’s standards, that He sees things differently. Saul was one whom the world looked upon with favor but he turned out to be a bad king. David was the least of his brothers and the world would not have chosen him but God did. The role of certain prominent women in the Bible, I would argue, is not so much about their gender as about their unsuitability in the eyes of the world. In this they are not alone. Quite a number of men were also unsuitable and yet God also worked through them. The lesson for us in all this is that God does not see and the world sees and that God chooses the weak of the world to shame the strong and to show His power. Viewed in this way, the stories which feature women and not so much about the women themselves or their femaleness but about God and His electing will and His power. One could even say that God’s use of women, as well as that of foreigners and younger sons, confirms their unsuitabilty. He chooses them and works through them precisely because they are the means the world despises.

Though Byrd at times speaks of the Bible’s suitability as a means of instruction for both men and women (p. 51), she persists in this characterization of the text as primarily androcentric with gynocentric interruptions. In this I think she has accepted the premises of other groups from both ends of the spectrum who either dismiss the text as being irrelevant because it is patriarchal or who point to its androcentrism and a means of buoying up their own patriarchal ambitions. What we need is not to find the women’s voice in Scripture but to take the text as it is, as God’s Word to mankind, not just to man. It is the categories and divisions in our minds which are the stumbling block, not the next itself.

A second issue I have with Byrd’s way of using Scripture is her tendency to read into the text more than we are told. Now we all do this to some extent. We read and narrative and it is natural to imagine how the characters felt or what the larger circumstances might have been, but we need to be careful that the things we imagine don’t become Scripture to us. The nature of biblical narrative is that iftoften doesn’t tell us all we want to know. So we add to it, without perhaps even knowing we are doing so, and our additions shape how we read Scripture.

Many of the assumptions Byrd makes are about the role of women. She assumes, for instance, that when Phoebe delivered Paul’s letter to the Romans that this necessarily entailed some kind of interpretive authority (pp. 147ff). Paul, she tells us, “also must have picked up on her theological vigor and poured into her, equipping her well to answer questions the Roman church was sure to have” (p. 220). No doubt the commission was a prestigious one, but we are not told and I do not think we can assume what Phoebe did or was expected to do with regard to helping the church in Rome understand the letter. The role of women in passing on the faith seems to be a sticking point for Byrd so she also assumes that stories about women much have bee told by women. The story of Jephthah’s daughter is such an example (p. 82). Again, there is an assumption here that only women would have told or could accurately have told a story featuring female characters.

Byrd, following others, also assumes that women led the house churches which were usual in the early church. “‘[I]f Lydia didn’t lead the fledgling church in Philippi, who did?'” she asks (p. 191). Byrd says that she adheres to male-only ordination, and I believe that she does, but she is walking dangerously close to the edge of the cliff here. If one accepts that Lydia led her house church which met in her home, led in terms of leading  worship and explicating God’s Word, why should women not do the same today? On the other hand, if we read the passages about these house churches within the context of the rest of the New Testament, I think we must conclude that Lydia and other women did not lead in these ways. Paul makes quite clear elsewhere that this kind of authoritative leadership is reserved for men. Who did lead the church in Philippi? We don’t know; Scripture doesn’t say. But there are lots of details like this that we are not given and many servants of God who are not named. This need not disturb us.

Byrd is unapologetic for the way in which she thus reads into Scripture, quoting Richard Bauckham, she calls this “‘historical imagination'” (p. 223). While there may be a degree to which it is impossible for one to avoid using their imagination in reading the narrative of Scripture, I would not tout this as a good and appropriate way to approach God’s Word. We should be aware of our own tendency to imagine not so that we may do so and try to fill in details God has chosen not to give us but so that we can try to avoid doing so and to stick more closely to His Word.

As a side note here, I will add that I am concerned about Byrd’s sources, about the books she is reading and quoting. I have not taken the time to look into them but, judging a book by its cover of you will, based on their titles and on the quotes she selects, it seems like many if not most of the people whose interpretations she is following are from the liberal egalitarian camp. Which is not to say that they may not at times have valuable and true things to add to the discussion but the impression I get is that there is little balance here.

I’d like to end my discussion of Byrd’s use of Scripture where she ends the book (or close to it), with her take on the story of Eve. Early in the discussion, she quotes one P. Wayne Townsend who argues that Genesis is written in light of the exodus and conquest of the land as an apologetic for the nation of Israel (p. 207). “‘In this context,” Byrd tells us, quoting Townsend, ‘”the story of the Fall functions as a pretext for the exodus-conquest. Genesis 3 identifies the sources of evil that have led to the suffering of slavery. It also justifies the conquest . . . ‘” and so on (p. 208). Byrd goes on to tie the sin of eating the fruit in Genesis 3 to the Levitical laws about cleanliness and the dietary laws. For a new Israel, separation from the nations was important and Genesis 3 gives the justification be presenting the original sin as one of touching and eating what should not have been touched or eaten.

This argument is oddly like that which LeFebvre makes regarding Genesis 1 in The Liturgy of Creation (again, my review here).  Both tie a Genesis narrative to the presumed original audience — the nation of Israel — and therefore place the significance of the Genesis narrative in its meaning to that audience which is primarily assumed to be a justification for the practices they already know. That is, for LeFebvre Genesis 1 justifies the weekly calendar of work and Sabbath and for Byrd (and those she is relying on) Genesis 3 justifies the Levitical laws about cleanliness and food. There is a base assumption here which says that the meaning for the original audience is the primary meaning. The narratives of Genesis are not read for their truth value (Is this how God really created the world? Is this how mankind fell?) or for their place within the larger revelation of Scripture (What do these events say about mankind’s state before his Creator?) but as a kind of ancient Israelite propaganda. In neither interpretation does the Genesis narrative considered even give new information to its original audience. They are into taught about how man was created or how he fell but are only given justifications for practices they already know. I find this a very narrow and unacceptable way to read Scripture.

For Byrd, reading Genesis 3 in this way, Eve becomes a find of hero. As you may recall, God had told Adam not to eat of the tree and Eve adds “nor touch it.” This may be interpreted various ways. Some say Adam added to God’s law in repeating it to Eve and thus make adding to the law a kind of sin and place it on his shoulders. In Byrd’s interpretation (again following others), Eve adds “nor touch.” In doing so she makes the prohibition more like the Levitical laws and thereby gives us “the story behind the story” (p. 209). Eve is portrayed as a kind of prophetess and the original sin its nature and its implications, are largely undiscussed.

Byrd has some valuable ideas which the church needs to hear. I like how she speaks of siblingship within the church and the need to disciple all lay people, men and women.  I agree as well with her critique of the extremes of the complementarian movement. But I am very disturbed by some aspects of how she uses Scripture to make her arguments. We do not need to accept the categories others give us that the text must either be androcentric or gynocentric and that men and women can’t fruitfully read texts which are not about their own gender. And when we do read, we need to be careful who we follow and we need to resist our own urge to fill in details, particularly when we then use our own “historical imagination” as the basis for our biblical interpretation.

Nebby

[1] I have bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Hebrew and was ABD (“all but dissertation”) in a Ph.D. program at a prestigious secular university.

 

The Hurried Child: How Socialization Happens

Dear Reader,

If you are a homeschooler, you are probably sick of the “S” word  (if you are not, that word is “socialization”). Often used as a weapon by mothers-in-law and doubting friends, it is a slippery little word with so many possible meanings that it becomes hard to defend oneself against the “they won’t be socialized” accusation.

But it turns out there are actual scholarly definitions of socialization and theories about how it happens, or fails to. I recently picked up an older book, The Hurried Child by David Elkind, Ph.D (Cambridge, MA; Da Capo Press, 2007; 3rd edition). Elkind is a professor of child psychology who originally wrote this volume in the 1980s to argue that America’s children were being hurried into growing up too fast to their detriment. Even the revised revised volume I have is somewhat dated, but there is still some meat here which is worth considering.

Elkind does not start from the same place I would. There is no evidence he is a Christian; his view of human nature seems to be entirely physical, ignoring any spiritual element. He relies heavily on thinkers that I would consider suspect: Rousseau, Freud, and Piaget among them. And his idea of the child vis-a-vis the adult is not mine.

Yet a lot of the scholarship here supports and adds to some of the ideas about education which we have been discussing. A small example: I have argued, along with Charlotte Mason and others, for a broad education that does not allow the child to specialize too early. Elkind provides arguments from his clinical experience to back this up:

“Premature structuring is most often seen in children who have been trained from an early age in one or another sport or performing art. What often happens is that the child becomes so specialized so early that other parts of his personality are somewhat undeveloped.” (pp. 198-99)

Some other ideas Elkind presents with which I would agree:

  • Multi-age groupings of children are beneficial (p. 69).
  • Standardization in education is detrimental (p. 50).
  • Sex ed in the classroom does not work (p. 65).
  • Children confronted with tasks for which they are not ready blame themselves for failure and develop a “learned helplessness” (pp. 57, 131). [We also saw this idea in The Making and Unmaking of a Dullard; see this post.]

There were also a number of ideas I got from this book which I had not considered previosuly but which make a lot of sense:

  •  The motivation for learning to read is primarily social (p. 38).
  • A certain amount of repression is a good thing. Kids need to learn the rules, for instance the rule of romantic relationships, before they learn to break them. Thus movies and the like with adult themes do damage to kids. They see the breaking before they learn the rules (pp. 95f).
  • Grammar and algebra are best taught after age 11 or so. Both these subjects require is to think about thinking. Until that time kids are not ready to learn them (pp. 132f). [I need to think more about this one; I have generally resisted delineating stages in education.]

The biggest topic which made me think here is the one that seems to be uniquely Elkind’s theory. It is about how kids are socialized. He does not offer one clear definition but Elkind’s working definition of socialization seems to be that it is how children learn to live within a society (p.142).  Much to my pleasure, he places the primary locus of this teaching squarely within the family. After reviewing a few models of how socilization happens, Elkind presents his own which incorporates the others but is broader. His theory is that parents and children interact through a multi-faceted social contract. This contract has three axes which might be called the achievement-support axis, the responsibility-freedom axis, and the loyalty-commitment axis. Over time on each of these there will be change and renegotiation. Parents initially control the whole contract and set it terms but over time children are given more say in the contract (p. 147). When parents break the contract, or ar perceived to do so, children have problems. It is important to note as well that the elements of this contract are often implicit; they are not laid out or communicated verbally but are nonetheless understood on a number of levels (p. 155).

The responsibility-freedom axis is perhaps the easier to understand. The child is given more freedom over time in proportion to the responsibility he is able to take. This axis of the contract in particular prepares the child to be a responsible member of society. He learns that there is a trade-off between freedom and responsibility (p. 148).

I am a little looser on my understanding of the acheivement-support axis (pp. 149ff). Elkind argues that parents need to give their children support for their achievements (such as going to recitals and sporting events)  while also acknowledging that the child should not be made to feel that his success is for the parent’s gratification — which is all well and good. It does not seem to be as much of a trade-off, however, as the child’s achievement is not for the parent’s benefit and is certainly not something he owes the parent.

The loyalty-commitment axis is particularly interesting.  It says that parents expect a certain amount of loyalty and give their commitment (pp. 152ff). I think Christian parenting books especially are prone to identifying the responsibility-freedom axis accurately but to omitting the other axes. I haven’t thought of all the implications of this yet but I wonder if and how our strategies would change if we took this definition of social contracting between parent and child and applied it in a Christian context.

For Elkind the contract between parent and child is the primary means of socialization but it is not by itself sufficient. The parent-child relationship is a hierarchical one. The child also needs relationships with peers, those on his own level, with whom he has more equal contracts which also require much more negotiation (p. 155). And as he grows, he will also likely be the parent to a child. Elkind argues that he cannot learn the parent side of a contract directly from his parent (p. 155).

Overall I think there is a lot in this theory that fits well with Christian theology, and particularly with reformed covenant theology. Covenant theology says that God relates to us through a covenant which is essentially a contract. That we would also relate to our children in this way makes sense to me. For Elkind the parent-child contract does not actually teach the child how to be the dominant party in an unequal contract. I would argue that our contracts are actually mutli-tiered. We parents do our parenting as agents of God. We do so by divine, delegated authority. Thus even as we are authorities to our children, we are under authority to our God. Our children learn from us both how to be in authority and how to be under authority (if we are doing it well).

Elkind does not draw the lines he might between this theory of social contracts and our educational system He does at times say that requiring young children to move from daycare to school and back to daycare hurries them by forcing them to make more transitions than they are capable of but he does not go much farther than this. I would argue that every relationship is in some sense a contract. Asking young children to make too many contracts, particularly unequal ones in which they have little or no say, is dangerous ground. These kinds of contracts are in some sense in loco parentis. That is, because of the young are of the child, they mimic the parent-child contract, They can’t help but do so. Yet they offer some of the axes — responsibility-freedom and achievement-support — without offering all of them. Loyalty-commitment in particular is left out. And while I agree with Elkind that is is good and necessary for children to have peer relationships that require them to make equal contracts, I also wonder if throwing them into situations in which they are around 10 or 20 or more peers for long hours requires them to do too much negotiating. The deepest, most regular relationship, like those with siblings, are often the hardest to negotiate but can also be the most rewarding. Perhaps we were not meant to make so many “contracts” at a young age.

If you are a regular reader, you know that I am fairly pro-homeschooling. I understand, however, that this is not always a possible or even the ideal choice. I have concerns about how this social contract theory plays out when young children in particular are placed in the typical public school environment. But that does not mean that these problems cannot be overcome. If we are aware of the hazards, I think we can prepare our children for the many relationships they will have to negotiate. The main way to do this (that I can think of) is simply to be involved, to be aware of the relationships one’s child has, especially the unqueal ones which put the child in the subordinate position  and to make sure they are good relationships. And to always make the child aware that the parent is still involved and will have the commitment to them that they require.

As for that socialization argument that your mother-in-law badgers you with — Elkind’s theory provides is with some pretty good answers. If to be socialized is to learn to live in society, then the family is the first and primary society in which to learn this skill. Though it is a smaller classroom, it is an intense one and in it a parent can do more to ensure that the lessons learned are the right ones. It is a question of quality versus quantity. Better a few good relationships which involve all the axes the child needs than a large number which are yet only partial contracts.

Nebby

 

Books Read: May 2020

Dear Reader,

Quarantine is quite a productive time for reading, isn’t it? I find it helps to have a lot of books going at once, especially now. Here is what I finished in May:

Books Read May 2020

Main Travelled-Roads by Hamlin Garland — Another of the books I’ve been reading that could be called American provincialism, i.e. they give a picture of life in the US in one particular region and time. This one is a collection of shorter stories, almost all set in Wisconsin and the midwest in pioneer times (one story is clearly Civil War era; the others are more vague on decade). Settlers of Scandinavian descent are frequent characters. I almost dropped the book after the first two, they were so depressing. But others are more cheerful. Overall I would say it was an okay book but as with the others of this genre I have read there is a lot of “American values are to be nice and pull yourself up by your bootstraps” and not a lot of real character presented.

Johann Sturm on Education (ed. Spitz and Tinsley) — Part of my continuing series on reformed Christian education. Sturm is an older writer, like contemporary of Luther and Calvin old. His approach to education is classical. In all honesty I did not read the whole book but it is a collection of letters and the like and a few key ones serve to give a pretty good overview of his approach. He was quite influential, on both Portestant and Catholic education, though I found a lot of what he had to say dated. Read my full review here

Alfred North Whitehead The Aims of Education — I had seen Whitehead quoted by a number of classical educators and decided if he was so influential I needed to read him. His book gave me a lot to ponder but in truth he is not Christian not classical and his philosophy is very modern and a little weird. I am not really sure why he gets quoted so often (it is just one line that they particularly like). Read all my thoughts on Whitehead here. An interesting read but not essential.

H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Call of Cthulhu” and “At the Mountains of Madness” — I heard someone on a podcast say that Christians don’t have horror, that it doesn’t work in a Christian worldview in which God is in charge. I am not sure that is true but it inspired me to read a little more Lovecraft. These are two of his longer (though still fairly short) and more famous stories. There are distinct similarities between them. The worlds and beings Lovecraft created inspired a kind of religion but as I read them (and from what I read about him) Lovecraft himself has being facetious and critical of those who look for deep meaning in old tales and mythical creatures. They are interesting stories though. Maybe not action packed enough for kids but I enjoyed them.  And if you have thoughts on Christian horror I’d love to hear them. 

Middlemarch by George Eliot — I listened to this one as an audio book and it took months. Not a bad story, a little slow at points. It turns out to be quite a bit about marriage which I didn’t get till the end. I am not sure I could have made it through in book form but I make myself a bit of a captive audience with the audio books. 

The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan — True confessions time. I had never read this all the way through. So I force myself too (well, part 1 at least which is about Christian). I had never made it through because I could never quite get into it. And (sit down for this one) I am still not a huge fan. I think it is the allegory that just doesn’t appeal to me. I find something like Crime and Punishment or Anna Karenina just has a lot more moral complexity. I find Pilgrim’s Progress a bit like one long sermon example. Sermon examples have their place but they don’t make good books.

What have you been reading?

Nebby

Book Review: The Liturgy of Creation

Dear Reader,

Michael Lefebvre’s The Liturgy of Creation: Understanding Calendars in Old Testament Context (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2019) presents an interesting new approach to Genesis 1. LeFebvre is a member of my own denomination, a pastor, and a professor at the denominational seminary. He is clearly an intelligent scholar who has done a lot of study and put a lot of thought into the argument he makes. Having read the book and taken some time to ponder it, I am still not entirely sure where I fall on its argument.

My own background is in biblical Hebrew [1] and I have given some thought to the creation story in the past. Going into this book I would have said I am somewhat agnostic on creation issues, tending toward an Old Earth creationism but certainly not a literal 6-day creationism. [2] I also would say (and have said) that Genesis 1 is a unique narrative. It stands not just at the beginning of our Bible but as an introduction to the Pentateuch, the Old Testamen,t and the Scriptures as a whole. Despite attempts to define it, it is not really like any other section of Scripture in terms of its style and genre. Therefore it is hard to know how to take it.  I have argued, for instance, that though literal creationists want to compare the use of days with numbers attached to other such uses in the Pentateuch, that these can not really be compared on an equal footing since they are not the same kinds of texts.

LeFebvre has no doubt gotten and will get a lot of flack for his book from literal 6-day creationists. In fact, a large part of the book is devoted to saying, again and again, that Genesis 1 cannot be used to say anything about the scientific aspects of when and how the earth was created. This is not my problem with the book. I went into the book already half-way on LeFebvre’s side in that I did not take the six days literally and I do take Genesis 1 as a different kind of genre, though I had no real answer to the question of what that genre is.

LeFebvre provides an answer to the question. The thesis of his book is that Genesis 1 is a calendar narrative (p. 6). As far as I know this is a genre he has uniquely identified and defined. The arguments he makes are built something like a brick wall in that they all hold together and work toward a common goal but it would be possible to disagree with some points here and there without knocking down the whole edifice. To mix my metaphors, one might say many of his arguments are circumstantial evidence. No one alone proves his point but when taken altogether he does make a compelling case.

I can’t possibly address everything LeFebvre brings into the discussion. I am going to leave aside all the scientific/creationist issues because (a) I am sure others will address those at length and (b) they are not issues for me personally. What I would like to focus on are just a few of the bigger issues and implications of Lefebvre’s argument.

Simply put, LeFeFebvre’s argument is that there is a genre within the Old Testament which he calls calendar narrative. He begins by looking at other passages from the Pentateuch and showing how the dates in them make no sense if taken literally (or at least pose serious issues). He shows how these dates line up with the festival holidays of Israel and argues that they were never meant to be taken literally but to tie Israel’s history to its calendar observances. These dates, he says, were for “liturgical remembrance,” not “journalistic detail” (p. 60). They were meant for the instruction of later generations (p. 66). Whereas the surrounding Ancient Near Eastern cultures might tie their festivals to their myths, Israel’s festivals were rooted in their history (p. 14). Thus the story of the Passover, for one, is not intended to provide a precise history but to give instruction and meaning to the worshipper who will come later (p. 77).

Having learned “a reading strategy” (p. 66) from these other passages, LeFebvre turns to Genesis 1 and argues that the seven-day week it describes was also never meant to be taken literally. Like those other dates, the narrative of Genesis 1, according to Lefebvre, provides a justification for Israel’s festivals. In this case it is the weekly work cycle culminating in the Sabbath which is the focus (p. 113).  Note that it is not the Sabbath alone which Genesis 1 points to but the whole week. It is an example to us as much of what we should be doing the first six days of the week as what we should be doing on the final day. The description of God’s work week in Genesis 1 establishes the pattern for the human week. As LeFebvre describes the events of that first week, there are the normal patterns of plants growing and the normal taxonomy of animals with which the Israelite farmer would have been familiar (p. 173). There is nothing miraculous here; the original audience would have recognized what happens in Genesis 1 as mirroring their normal work. God, in this scenario, is the pattern for humans (p. 137). He is the Model Farmer (p. 165). The culmination of the week, the seventh day, is a time to enjoy the fruits of one’s labor. It is a day of feasting.

On one level, there is a lot of appeal to LeFebvre’s theory. As I said, it tends to be in line with where my thoughts were going anyway — that Genesis has a unique genre and that we need to understand it as such. I think we also need to admit that there are some parts of the Bible that are just hard to take as literal history. Some dates don’t seem to line up or to make sense. There are various ways to deal with these seeming contradictions and some are more convincing than others. LeFebvre’s theory does an end-run around such arguments by saying that these dates were never meant to be taken literally.  He rather elegantly does away with the seeming contradictions without undermining the text or robbing them of it meaning.

LeFebvre spends some time explaining how the Bible deals with the scientific theories and beliefs of its day. Basically his argument is that the Bible never contradicts what its original readers would have believed. It never stretches them scientifically even if what they believed was wrong (a geocentric universe for example). In the context of his overall argument, this is perfectly acceptable. Since the Bible was not meant as science, it has no need to correct wrong science or to teach right science. I do actually like how he explains all this. It was not something I had thought about in this way but it makes sense.

I am less persuaded by some of his other arguments. (Recall that these arguments are like bricks in a wall; if we remove too many the whole will fall but to reject one or two is not necessarily to overthrow the whole.) He largely discounts miraculous explanations for the seeming contradictions. Not that he is a denier of miracles altogether, but he argues that if “the supernatural help of the Lord” were needed to accomplish large tasks such as the making of the utensils for the tabernacle in a relatively short amount of time that the text would have made this explicit (p. 87). This seems like a big assumption to me. One could argue on the other side that because there are so many instances where things were accomplished in humanly impossible (or at least improbable) amounts of time that this is how the text operates — these things happen and it does not comment on them. As with so many aspects of the biblical story, we are left to draw our own conclusions.

The thesis of LeFebvre’s book is that Genesis 1 is something he calls a calendar narrative. He bases this identification on the analogy with the other Pentateuchal texts which give dates. While he makes a compelling argument that the other passages use dates in a liturgical way, I don’t think he has established that there is a genre called calendar narrative or that Genesis 1 necessarily uses dates in the same way. As LeFebvre points out, the dates in Genesis 1 are different. They are days of the week with no reference to months (p. 115). He would say that this is because Genesis 1 speaks of the repeated weekly cycle rather than the yearly festivals, but, nonetheless, it is a difference. Genesis 1 is also one compact, discrete, and highly organized narrative. Compare this to the Flood story or the descriptions of Passover. My belief going into this was that Genesis 1 stands apart from the other Old Testament narratives we have because of its form and organization. LeFebvre has made a connection via the use of dates but he has not shown me that there is a genre here or what its defining characteristics would be, other than the use of specific dates which hardly seems enough to define a genre.

There is a difference as well in how LeFebvre himself deals with the details of these narratives. When speaking of the other narratives, he seems to take their details literally, apart from the issue of timing. Thus he can discuss how long it would have taken to make the utensils for the Tabernacle because he assumes that these utensils were made just as the text says and that the other events also happened as well in roughly the order they are presented. Yet when he comes to Genesis 1, there seems to be very little that he takes literally. To dismiss the idea of a literal week is one thing, but LeFebvre also says that the events of Creation need not have happened in the order they are presented (p. 138) and that even the mechanism of Creation is not meant literally (p. 146).

LeFebvre’s overall argument makes a very strong case for the Sabbath which I am not at all opposed to but it does so at the expense of other meaning. Coming as Genesis 1 does at the beginning of the whole Bible and being as it is a highly ordered narrative (a fairly unique thing within the Scriptures) one expects it to give an introduction to everything that follows, to set the tone if you will. [3] For Lefebvre, that introduction boils down to the Sabbath and the Sabbath alone:

“When the Holy Spirit guided the compilation of the Pentateuch, the sabbath-week calendar was placed at the front — literally in its first chapter (Gen 1:1-2:3). The cadence taught in that passage is the foundation from which our vision of God’s kingdom is unfolded in the rest of Scripture.” (p. 218)

In other words: “The Sabbath promise is literally the framing paradigm for all Scripture” (p. 219). This is quite a bold statement yet it comes at the end of the book with little discussion of how this would play out for our interpretation of the rest of the Bible. Let me say this again: LeFebvre is proposing a new paradigm for understanding all of Scripture.  Now the Sabbath is a wonderful thing and I think he could go a long way by talking about the ideal Sabbath rest which was set before us in Genesis 1, lost, found again in Jesus, and awaits us in eternity. But is this the paradigm by which we should understand all of Scripture? There are surely competing options. Covenant comes to mind. Jesus said that all of Scripture points to Him. If we are to say that Sabbath is the paradigm then at the very least that needs to be understood under the heading of Jesus as our Sabbath rest in which case it is not really the Sabbath which is key but Christ.

LeFebvre makes grand claims for Genesis 1 and yet in many ways he seems to rob it of meaning. His view of Genesis 1 is very focused and narrow. He concentrates on the weekly cycle of work and rest but in his understanding there is little else that Genesis 1 has to tell us. Personally, I think God tends to be a little more multifunctional than that. If we compare Genesis 1 to the Flood story, another of his calendar narratives, we find that while we might follow LeFebvre in not taking the dates literally there is still a lot the text has to tell us about not just big concepts like sin and judgment (not to mention baptism) but even about details like how many animals came in. If there is such a thing as calendar narrative, we still need to ask and answer questions about how we are to understand this genre. It is not enough to say “calendar narrative” as a way to explain the dates in a story and then to ignore the rest of what that narrative has to tell us. Considering the genre of any piece is useful in that it helps us know how to read that piece. LeFebvre has given a theory about how to understand the dates of certain texts, but he hasn’t spoken to how this helps our understanding of the rest of the details of these narratives.

As LeFebvre explains it, there is little left in Genesis 1 that would have been new information for its original audience. He makes a point of the fact that its agricultural details would have been very familiar to the average ancient Israelite. The actions and details of Genesis 1 would have been completely representative of the weekly cycle of work and rest of the average person. So much so that LeFebvre calls God “the Model Farmer.” I am willing to give LeFebvre the benefit of the doubt that he does not mean it this way but it is hard not to feel at times that, rather than man following the example of God here, God is being made in the image of man.

Often throughout the book I found myself wondering if what we have here is a chicken-and-egg problem. That is, which came first? If the Passover story (as an example) is being told in a way that instructs about the later celebration of that festival at the expense of the actual details about how the original Passover happened, which is the original story? Are there events which happened upon which the festival is based? Or is the story about Moses and the Israelites told to justify the festival? Again, this may not be how LeFebvre himself sees it (and I suspect it is not) but this is quite how modern, non-religious scholars take such texts — every story is created to explain a situation the audience already is quite familiar with. This is the definition of myth (with no implied judgment on its truthiness). Thus in Greek mythology the story of Demeter and Persephone explains the seasons and the Tower of Babel story explains why people speak different languages. LeFebvre’s understanding of Genesis 1 seems to fall into this same pattern — it explains something the audience already knew (agricultural cycles) and why they have certain practices (weekly work/rest pattern) but it would not have been informative for the original audience. In such an understanding, it is a story to explain why we do things the way we do not to tell us how to do something. The question for Genesis 1, then, is: Is the creation story written this way to justify the weekly practice or do the people have the weekly practice because this is how creation happened?

In his understanding of how dates are used in the Pentateuch, I do think LeFebvre has hit on something that deserves more attention. He has shown quite clearly how the various specific dates given lined up with Israel’s various festivals and feasts and that is quite compelling. He has not convinced me that there is a genre here that can be used to understand Genesis 1 in particular.  What I would like to see is a fuller description of the defining characteristics of this genre and how we are to interpret it, especially how we are to understand the details of such a story given its genre. I tend to agree with LeFebvre that there is not much we can get about chronology from Genesis 1 but that does not mean that there is not more that the story is telling us beyond the weekly cycle of work and rest.

LeFebvre is quite right when he says that his interpretation makes the Sabbath the paradigm for all of Scripture. But that is a huge claim. It is a fairly daunting thing in the year 2000-something to say “I have a new paradigm for understanding Scripture.” If he means it, I think he also needs to speak to how that paradigm shapes our understanding of the rest of the Bible.

If I can close by returning to the analogy I started with, I think LeFebvre has some very interesting bricks here. I am not convinced he has built a wall. When he speaks of the Sabbath paradigm, I feel he is saying “look, I can see a totally new country from my wall,” but he doesn’t tell me enough about what that country looks like.

Nebby

[1] I have a bachelors and masters in Hebrew from one secular university and was ABD “all but dissertation” in a Ph.D. Program at another prestigious secular university.

[2] You can find earlier posts I did on the whole creation/evolution thing here.

[3] Psalm 1 sets the tone for the Book of Psalms in much the same way.

[4] “Secular” here describes the institutions which had no religious affiliation (except perhaps a very distant historical one). The students and staff held to a range of beliefs. Some, students especially, professed various forms of Christianity. Some, professors especially, were fairly religious Jews.