WEIRD Societies, Fighting over Politics, and a Fatal Diagnosis
Season 3, Issue 4
|Phillip Johnston & Andy Patton||Apr 7|
A digest of three things to help you engage with God, neighbor, and culture.
How to Use Three Things to Start a Discussion Group
Before jumping into the issue, we thought we would share a creative use of Three Things from our friends Emily and Tim Bowyer. They've been gathering to discuss one or two Three Things articles with a group of friends and acquaintances on a regular basis.
Here is a description of their event in Emily's words:
The conversation group USED [before COVID] to be an in-person gathering on the third Thursday evening of every month, different locations around town—art galleries, retail stores, schools, homes—and was totally open to the public. We never knew exactly who would walk in the door, though largely 80% would be a consistent group. We have an email chain and sometimes advertised in the newspaper. Everyone would bring a snack or drink to share, and then we provided two discussion questions on a handout with relevant quotes to provide context.
Sometimes we wrote the questions but we also invited group members to submit their own in advance. We also had a list of “guidelines” that we read at the beginning of every gathering, to remind people of the “rules of engagement”. We’d spend 45 minutes talking about a question, have a 15-minute break, then 45 minutes for the next question.
Emily and Tim have kindly shared a sample handout (with conversation guidelines) to use as a sample in case you would like to start something similar of your own.
Now, on to the issue.
Growing My Faith in the Face of Death
Tim Keller on facing cancer and the hope of resurrection
Last year at the age of 70, Tim Keller was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. After years as a pastor counselling countless people through disease, death and bereavement, "the shattering reality of a fatal diagnosis" was overwhelming:
A significant number of believers in God find their faith shaken or destroyed when they learn that they will die at a time and in a way that seems unfair to them. Before my diagnosis, I had seen this in people of many faiths. One woman with cancer told me years ago, “I’m not a believer anymore—that doesn’t work for me. I can’t believe in a personal God who would do something like this to me.” Cancer killed her God.
What would happen to me? I felt like a surgeon who was suddenly on the operating table. Would I be able to take my own advice?
Cancer inaugurated a new season of "head work and heart work" for Keller. Known as a Christian apologist, Keller now had to take stock of his beliefs, realizing that some of them had been shaped more by the surrounding culture than by Scripture. He returned to arguments for the resurrection of Jesus and found the questions no longer theoretical but deeply personal. This was the head work.
"The heart work came in as I struggled to bridge the gap between an abstract belief and one that touches the imagination," Keller writes.
I had to look hard at my deepest trusts, my strongest loves and fears, and bring them into contact with God. Sometimes—not always, or even usually—this leads, as the poet George Herbert wrote, to “a kind of tune … softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss, exalted manna … heaven in the ordinary.” But even though most days’ hour of Bible reading, meditation, soliloquy, and prayer doesn’t yield this kind of music, the reality of God and his promises grew on me. My imagination became more able to visualize the resurrection and rest my heart in it.
Read Growing My Faith in the Face of Death over at The Atlantic. Check out Keller's new book Hope in Times of Fear: The Resurrection and the Meaning of Easter
The WEIRDest People in the World
Joseph Heinrich on our faulty perceptions of human nature
Where do our widely accepted ideas about human psychology come from? Because the formative research behind these ideas occurs at elite institutions of higher learning, many of the conclusions are substantially "WEIRD": western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic.
The result, says psychologist Joseph Heinrich, is that we hold distorted ideas about what human beings are actually like. We have WEIRD ideas that do not apply to humans in other places, nor to our own ancestors in ages past.
WEIRD is not the norm, Heinrich says in his (massive) book The WEIRDest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous. In this episode of The Good Fight, Heinrich talks with Yascha Mounk about the peculiarities of WEIRD people. The result is a deeper understanding of the rise of Western culture and of the current transformations taking place in non-WEIRD places around the world.
Listen to What You Miss About the World If You Only Study Students at Harvard over at Persuasion. Remi Adekoya opens the podcast with a précis of his recent article Race Isn't Just Black and White. For a Christian interaction with Heinrich's thesis, see Andrew Wilson's review.
Four Approaches to Race, Politics, and Gender
Kevin DeYoung on our current culture clash
Kevin DeYoung was once part of a movement – "a remarkable coming together" of Christian networks, ministries, and church leaders around common commitments from around 2000-2014
But then, well, stuff happened: Ferguson (2014), Trump (2016), coronavirus (2020–2021), George Floyd (2020), and Trump once again (2020–2021). Now, the movement has splintered to such a degree that "people who can affirm the same doctrinal commitments on paper are miles apart in their posture and practice", particularly when it comes to race, politics and gender.
This is happening in the broader culture beyond DeYoung's splintered collective. Churches, communities, schools, and friendships are now riven by divergent approaches to these issues – and the heat is turning up.
In this post, DeYoung makes a good faith effort to outline four common approaches represented by four "teams", each one labeled according to "what it sees as the central need of the hour, by what it assesses as the most urgent work of the church in this cultural moment". The label is followed by a statement of purpose:
Contrite: “Look at the church’s complicity in past and present evils. We have been blind to injustice, prejudice, racism, sexism, and abuse. What the world needs is to see a church owning its sins and working, in brokenness, to make up for them and overcome them.”
Compassionate: “Look at the many people hurting and grieving in our midst and in the world. Now is the time to listen and learn. Now is the time to weep with those who weep. What the world needs is a church that demonstrates the love of Christ.”
Careful: “Look at the moral confusion and intellectual carelessness that marks our time. Let’s pay attention to our language and our definitions. What the world needs is a church that will draw upon the best of its theological tradition and lead the way in understanding the challenges of our day.”
Courageous: “Look at the church’s compromise with (if not outright capitulation to) the spirit of the age. Now is the time for a trumpet blast, not for backing down. What the world needs is a church that will admonish the wayward, warn against danger, and stand as a bulwark for truth, no matter how unpopular.”
DeYoung charts the varying approaches of these teams to white supremacy, Christian nationalism, police shootings, mask wearing, and more. He also provides an account of how the teams interact (hint: 1s and 4s don't get along). The article settles no disagreements, but DeYoung's schema could lead to clearer understanding of why we're disagreeing so intensely.
Read Four Approaches to Race, Politics, and Gender for a clarifying taxonomy of our current moment. For a book that cuts through the noise in similar ways, check out James Mumford's Vexed: Beyond Political Tribes.
There is so much good to say about Grace Olmstead’s debut book, Uprooted
Recovering the Legacy of the Places We've Left Behind. Part polemic against the agricultural industrial complex, part family history, part personal memoir, and part local history, Uprooted gracefully weaves through the intertwining stories of Olmstead's family’s farming history, the decision to leave her hometown of Emmett, and the fragile inhumanity of our food systems. The book challenges readers who, like the author, are perhaps trying to reconcile what it means to be in one place at the present, yet from another. This tension of belonging animates the entire book.
The story of displacement is told vis-a-vis the changes in American agriculture over the past 100 years. The book avoids two common pitfalls in doing so. First, it steers clear of an easy romanticism for the better days of a pre-industrial food system (something I myself have been guilty of after my first encounter with the writings of Wendell Berry, a figure whose influence is all over this book). Yet at the same time, the book avoids a cynical fall into despair and paralysis at the magnitude of damage our food systems have inflicted upon the land, the communities of people who give their lives to grow food in it, and those of us who consume it. This eye toward larger “political” systems and “personal” stories is part of what makes Uprooted so compelling. Olmstead speaks to both without neglecting either.
What truly captivated me as a reader, however, was the frequent return to a loving and honest portrait of the Howards of Emmett, Idaho, the place and people Olmstead is from. Her inventive, contrarian, gracious and hard-working great-Grandfather Howard (“grand-pa dad”) exemplifies the “sticker” way of life the book calls for.
Borrowing the terminology from Wallace Stegner, “stickers” are those who settle down in a place to invest in it, while “boomers” are those who come to extract value from a place and then move on. Uprooted is a wonderfully written, inspiring portrait of stickers in a world of boomers.
~ Joshua Chestnut
Andy has been using his time during the UK's lockdown to scrounge through the corners of the property to find wood, ropes, and bolts for a new playground going up in the back garden. The project has currently reached the "Hey, that looks like a monkey house I saw at the zoo once" level and aspires to "Wow, do you charge for adults to play?" Stay tuned for more updates.
Writing: Andy is sending out emails about the image of water as it appears in the Bible from Genesis to Revelation. If you would like to start getting them, email email@example.com.
Reading: If you are looking for a book on marriage, Terry Real's The New Rules of Marriage gets all the recommendation stars Andy has to give.
WARNING: If you are not the type of person known as an "alpha nerd," stop reading now and move on to Phillip's no-doubt-more-sophisticated Miscellany update.
On the other hand, if you know a smattering of Klingon, have considered getting a Lord of the Rings tattoo, or sometimes plan out how you might barricade yourself inside your house in the event of a zombie apocalypse, then the following book recommendations are for you. Lately, Andy has been hooked on He Who Fights With Monsters and Dungeon Crawler Carl, litRPG adventures that occupy the niche-est of niches in the sub-genre basement.
Phillip was worried that a national shortage of patio furniture would prevent his family from enjoying the English springtime on their deck. But Zuckerberg's marketplace came through and an ex-pub table and chairs now adorn the garden. Come on over (when it's legal)!
Reading: With physical size and word count, small books are (almost) always better books. Phillip is spending time with two gems lately: Peter's Leithart's splendid new primer on baptism and On Pascha, a second-century proto-Easter text that will blow your mind.
Listening: Have you come across to David Suchet's live readings of John's gospel (at Westminster Abbey) or Mark's (at St Paul's Cathedral)? The latter is especially enthralling. Phillip has also had Sondheim on the brain of late, particularly "Comedy Tonight". What an opener!
What do YOU do with Three Things?
If you have been using the newsletter in a creative way like Emily and Tim, email firstname.lastname@example.org and let us know. We might share your ideas with our readers.
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