Thursday, June 30, 2011

"Addiction and Virtue: Beyond the Models of disease and Choice" Book Review


That word is the perfect word to describe today's theological thinking concerning issues such as addiction, disease, mental illness and abuse. Time after time I have read books that force the reader into dichotomies such as "all addiction is a disease" or "all addiction is a choice--you just need to pull yourself up!" However, being on the front line of ministry, I have found that neither option is particularly helpful or effective. Most books oversimplify the issues involved. Sure, the answers they provide are clean, but do they ultimately work and explain what is really happening?

This is exactly why Addiction and Virtue: Beyond the Models of Disease and Choice by Kent J. Dunnington is such a vastly important book for today--he avoids oversimplifications. In many ways, I feel that this book could very well be the bridge that leads many practical theologians to new thinking regarding addiction.

Make no mistake about it: Addiction and Virtue is a technical book and the reader will find himself re-reading much of what is written in order to fully comprehend and digest what is really being said. However,  in a mere eight chapters, Kent Dunnington does some major earthshaking business.

After outlining the current dilemma in much writing on addiction in chapter one, the author proceeds to outline his model (using primarily Aristotle and Aquinas as the fountain for his paradigm) in chapters 2-4. Without diving into the nuances of his argument, Dunnington moves past the categories of disease and choice and moves towards the category of "habit." Brilliantly, he outlines how habits work and how they impact all rational and emotional faculties. Chapters 2-4 are by far his most technical chapters, but they are also the meat of the book and should be read carefully.

For me, chapter five was perhaps the most unnerving--in a good way! Dunnington argues how the addictions that many struggle with can be voices of what our culture is struggling with. He argues that America largely struggles with areas of arbitrariness, boredom and loneliness. Dunnngton also issues a call to the church, as the church how it will offer alternatives. In this sense, the addict serves as an "unwitting prophet."

Chapters 6-8 move toward laying a biblical foundation for all that has been stated so far. The author provides very convincing arguments throughout and does a tremendous job of outlining clear directives for the church in light of his entire argument. These chapters were simply fantastic and much practical advice was given. They provided a great end to a groundbreaking book.

In conclusion, if you are a pastor, professor, counselor or just someone who works with people in general, you need to read this book. It is a challenging read but it is a rewarding read and one that will certainly challenge your paradigm. However, it does not just provide theoretical "pie in the sky" philosophy. It provides real world answers to real world problems. As a result, I cannot recommend highly enough Addicition and Virtue: Beyond the Models of Disease and Choice.

*Thanks to IVP Academics for providing a free review copy in an exchange for a fair review of the book. I was not required to post a positive review*

Friday, June 17, 2011

"Redeeming Sociology:A God-Centered Approach" Book Review

Every once and a while a book comes along that challenges your paradigm of thinking about the world. It challenges you to analyze anew things you might have taken for granted in the past. Redeeming Sociology: A God-Centered Approach by Vern Poythress is one of those books!

In theory, what Poythress attempts to do in Redeeming Sociology is spectacularly ambitious--provide a theological rationale for proving why God belongs in sociology (a field widely known for being dominated by secular thinking). However ambitious Redeeming Sociology might be, however, Poythress pulls off a convincingly brilliant argument. The central idea one should take away from this text is this: all of life parallels the Trinity's own relationship with each other and man.

Without attempting to describe each of the books 36 chapters (divided into five parts), the main contours of the book can be described briefly. In part one, Poythress sets the stage that every human relationship is patterned off the Trinity. Drawing heavily from John Frame's own multiperspecival approach to theology, Poythress often introduces how multiple perspectives can be held in tension when discussing human relationships.

In part two, Poythress demonstrates how our relationships correspond to history. In essence, the author introduces a God-perspective approach to history and the actions that constitute that history. In part three, the author introduces a paradigm for understanding and interpreting our relationships and the actions that constitute each action. In part four, Poythress introduces an in-depth look at substructures that make up both our relationships and our culture. At this point, the author begins synthesizing many of his major ideas. Finally, in part 5, the author finally brings all of his ideas together for a final synthesis and application.

While the book at times is redundant (and some chapters didn't seem to advance the argument), it was overall extremely well written. Poythress relies heavily upon John Frame and at times I wish he would have documented more. Also, at times I felt he forced his Triune perspective of sociology to the point of it becoming some what superficial. As whole, however, these are rather small complaints. The book as a whole sustains a convincing argument.

In conclusion, Redeeming Sociology is a book that should be read by every pastor and every theologian. Not only does it remind us that the social sciences should be claimed for Christ, but it reminds us that every relationship has at its core the Trinity. God has claimed this world for himself by modeling even our relationships off himself. Poythress reveals this truth which should lead every reader to doxology.

*Thanks to Crossway Publishers for providing a free review copy of this book in exchange for a fair review*

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Redefining Classes of Sin

If you have been in ministry any length of time (or human for any length of time for that matter), you will inevitably run into someone who will admit their sin to you, be genuinely grieved and repentant concerning it and yet will commit that same sin again and again. For a while most of my counseling sessions with guys struggling with porn consisted of several step programs involving reading and bible memorization. In essence, I felt that what they needed was simply to take the necessary steps forward and then the Holy Spirit would do the rest.
If we were to state my philosophy of sin theologically, I would have said that there were largely two classes of sin: sins of omission (failing to do what I ought) and sins of commission (doing what I ought not do). Both sins of omission and commission have the same premise—they flow from a root of pride (my thinking on this matter was influenced by Francis Schaffer). If a man struggled with porn, ultimately that is a sin rooted in pride. So if we are to attack porn we must attack pride. Some pastors I know would say that your sin of pride/porn is ultimately a problem rooted in your failure to understand the gospel of Jesus Christ.
But the problem is, the broader we try to define the root of sin, the more unhelpful we become when dealing with sin. Is repeatedly looking at porn a failure to comprehend the gospel? What if you teach clearly the gospel and the guy still looks at porn (though he claims to be a Christian)? Now do we say that they are unregenerate because of their persistent sin? Is looking at porn really rooted in pride? What if the man is truly hating the porn and yet cannot seem to break away? What if the man’s esteem and image is absolutely destroyed? Can we still say he is prideful? Also, while sins of omission and commission might be helpful in a broad way, how do they really help us when prescribing a remedy? Do we simply tell the man to start doing the right thing? That seems, at the very least, like the philosophy of pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps.
I think my realization that we might have all the theological training in the world but no clue how to apply it came when I asked my professor of New Testament how the Holy Spirit helped men who were addicted. What role do we play and what role does the Spirit play? His response? He didn’t really give one.

Recently, my thinking concerning sin has changed a bit from a book I am about to finish called Addiction and Virtue: Beyond the Models of Disease and Choice by Kent J. Dunnington. This forthcoming book by Baker Academics is a profound book in the sense that  Dunnington advocates the area of “habit” when discussing sin. In other words, our sinful choices lead us into sinful habits that affect our imagination, memory and cogitative estimation. Our sinful habits impact our imagination/thinking (or the way we see the world) can become habitually good or sinful. Likewise, cogitative estimation is a sort of “tacit knowledge” that impacts our decision making. This is formed by watching others, learning and perceiving the world. Finally, memory impacts the other two for it is through memory that we are able to perform acts that we have previously learned. In essence, sinful habits can impact each sphere.

This shows us clearly how a man can hate his sin, be hating it while doing it, and yet still do it—in essence, the above is the dichotomy of an addict. When a man is passionately pursuing sex what he is doing is something habitual to him. Maybe certain stimuli trigger the habitual response in him—a feeling of loneliness, being alone in a room with a computer, a sexy image of a woman—whatever (cogitative estimation/memory). At this same time, the man might justify or think his way into continually looking at the porn (or maybe his mind is screaming at him “you need this!”). Also at the same time, because his memory is trained, he instantly feels overwhelmed by all of the senses kicking in at once. Perhaps he is feeling quite at home at this point…”I’ve done this before.”

As Dunnington points out, repetition doesn’t produce habits alone—it also requires intensity of intent and focus (Dunnington, 77). We can become conditioned but not habituated (77-78). As Aquinas states, “So, too, repeated acts cause a habit to grow. If, however, the act falls short of the intensity of the habit, such an act does not dispose to an increase of that habit, but rather, to a lessening thereof” (Dunnington, 78 quoting Aquinas 1-2.52.3).  There are external and internal factors going on at all times.

This should, if anything, make us aware of the fact that simply commanding someone not to do something isn’t going to work and neither is giving them a guilt trip. Lordship salvation is helpful in reminding us that persistent, unrepentant sin is a key sign in unbelievers. However, it can be misleading in the fact that it tends to treat too severely those who struggle with addictions and strongly formed habits. Sin is not something you kick with enough mental power. Often those struggling mighty with addiction and habits are Christians who are being told they are unbelievers! I can think of no clearer example of this than Mark Driscoll’s own book Death by Love. While I am perhaps the biggest fan of this book, I have also come to realize that telling a guy who is constantly struggling with a sin that he is an unbeliever might not be the right answer. Sin is complex and far reaching.

The longer I work with students the more I realize that there are earnest students who love Jesus and yet who constantly make bad choices. I have found the clearest answer to students like this is that they are influenced mightily by sinful habits. It is a great word—you are still held responsible for your actions and yet at the same time it accounts for the fact that, yes, we fighting a major war.

Some might ask, “Isn’t what we call the sinful nature the same thing?” Not really—the sinful nature explains why we make sinful habits. In essence, sinful nature is a broad category that is incredibly helpful in describing our disposition but is less useful when describing individual sins. “Well of course I do what I don’t want to do—now how do I fix a sinful nature?” The answer is, you deal with a by-product of sinful natures—sinful habits. Your sinful nature never will go away this side of Heaven but the Spirit does deal with our sinful habits, replacing them with righteous habits or “fruits” if you will.
While at this point we could sketch out an idea of how the Holy Spirit works (a theology of “weeds and seeds” as I like to call it—the Spirit pulls out our weeds and plants new seeds), my main point was to simply point out that we need to clarify our thinking when it comes to sin. Often we provide shallow answers to complex questions and the result is frustration. I say this as a youth pastor who has often underwent much pain when counseling sincere men of God struggling with deeply ingrained sinful habits.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

"Early Christian Thinkers: The Lives and Legacies of Twelve Key Figures" Book Review

IVP Academics was kind enough to allow me an advanced copy of the book Early Christian Thinkers: The lives and Legacies of Twelve Key Figures. I was not required to write a positive review--only a fair one.

Normally, I have found church history books that focus on the individual lives of different Christian thinkers to be rather hit-or-miss. However, I believe that IVP Academic has really published an outstanding set of essays that outline several major thinkers.

Early Christian Thinkers is really a set of individual essays, written by different authors, that were previously published. As with any compilation some essays are better than others. Nevertheless, the majority are quite good. The chapter devoted to Tertullian by Everett Ferguson and Tatian by Paul Foster stand out as particularly noteworthy within this collection. Also, it was nice to see Perpetua included as her legacy, as one of the only women by whom we have anything written, is quite important. Some weaker chapters include the chapter devoted to Gregory Thaumaturgos, which seemed disjointed and muddled. However, as a whole the compilation is excellent.

In conclusion, Early Christian Thinkers is an academically rigorous book that seeks to accomplish much and largely succeeds. While some who are looking for just a general introduction might be better served looking elsewhere, anyone who is serious in engaging in the recent debates surrounding various textual issues with the Early Fathers is well served starting here. Overall, this book should become standard reading in any early church history class.