Monday, March 18, 2013

Book Review: Unspeakable - Facing Up to the Challenge of Evil Review: "Unspeakable - Facing Up to the Challenge of Evil," Os Guinness, New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2005. 242 pages.

I have had Os Guinness' books on my bookshelves before, but I had never taken the time to read them. Then I had opportunity to hear him speak at the RZIM Summer Institute in 2012 and realized I needed to start reading his work. He is a man with a brilliant mind and a great grasp of history. In "Unspeakable," Guinness takes on one of the most challenging issues we face as human beings, that of evil: it's source, its substance, its remedy. A daunting task to be sure.

It's difficult to know where to begin with this review - I can't imagine how challenging it would have been to write the book. To each of us, this subject is uniquely personal. We all have, or will, experience or witness evil and suffering in our own lives. As Guinness says: "One of the effects of globalization today is that our eyes vastly outreach our hands and our pockets. We always see more evil and suffering than we can possibly respond to."

Os builds his book around seven questions:
  1. Where on earth does evil come from?
  2. What's so right about a world so wrong? (Or "why me?" or "where's God?)
  3. Are we really worse or just modern?
  4. Do the differences make a difference?
  5. Isn't there something we can do?
  6. Why can't I know what I need to know?
  7. Isn't there any good in all this bad?
Throughout the book Guinness explores these questions through the lens of different worldviews, taking pains to respectfully share each point of view. He makes three arguments throughout the book: "that there are important differences between the various answers to evil; that these differences make a difference; and that the differences make a difference not only for individuals but for societies." 

His thoughtful and reasonable approach provides a great deal of insight into an issue which has long been discussed, but not understood. He destroys the modern myth that most evil is perpetrated by people of faith. In fact, the twentieth century was the bloodiest in the history of the world, largely due to the atheistic regimes of Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot and the like. But the biggest question arising out of the discussion is number 5: "Isn't there something we can do?"

 Guinness provides three features to a biblical response to evil and suffering:
  1. There is an acknowledgement that evil resides in each of our hearts.
  2. There is a commitment to forgive the evildoer appropriately, though without condoning the evil deed. (Witness the success of this approach in post-apartheid South Africa.)
  3. The commitment to take a practical stand against evil and injustice.
Alexander Solzhenitsyn
The bottom line to all of this is that each of us are challenged to take a stand against evil - that begins in our own hearts. This book shares many brilliant examples of brave men and women who have dared to stand and who made a difference against evil. Let me conclude with a quote from one of the giants of the twentieth century, Alexander Solzhenitsyn. "Let us not forget that violence does not and cannot flourish by itself; it is inevitably intertwined with lying. Between them there is the closest, the most profound and natural bond: nothing screens violence except lies, and the only way lies can hold out is by violence. Whoever has once announced violence as his method must inevitably choose lies as his principle... The simple act of an ordinary courageous man is not to take part, not to support lies! Let the lie come into the world, even dominate the world, but not through me." (Nobel address, 1970)

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Sunday, March 17, 2013

Book Review: Switch - How to Change Things When Change is Hard and Dan Heath's book "Change" was one of the books recommended at a Leadership Summit I attended a couple of years ago. They are a couple of sharp young guys who wrote this book after doing extensive research in psychology, sociology and other fields on how to bring about transformative change.

I found this book appealing as a pastor because a large part of what I do is try to help people bring about positive change in their lives. This book is written to help leaders understand why and how people change, what keeps us from changing, and how to overcome obstacles to change.

For instance, in each of us we find that there tends to be a conflict whenever even a positive change is suggested. As psychologists have discovered, our rational mind (the rider) understands the need to change, but our emotional mind (the elephant) resists change because change involves action and disturbing existing routine. However, if we can find a way to overcome that tension, change can happen quickly.

They begin by highlighting three surprises regarding change which were discovered through studies. The first is that What looks like a people problem is often a situation problem. In other words, we ought not to assume that people don't want to change. Often, they are in situations that make it difficult for them to change.

The second surprise is that What looks like laziness is often exhaustion. This is because often people are trying to change through the power of self-control, which can be emotionally exhausting. Self-control is an exhaustible resource. The bigger the change, the harder it is for someone to force themselves to make.

The third surprise is that What looks like resistance is often a lack of clarity. Sometimes we really don't know how to get to the other side, we just know that we want to change. We can find ourselves spinning our wheels because we just don't know what to do.

In the book, the Heaths provide a three-part framework for helping to facilitate change and to overcome these three problems.
  1. Direct the Rider (Rational Mind) 
  2. Motivate the Elephant (Emotional Mind)
  3. Shape the Path
Using real life examples and case studies, we can see how even entrenched behaviors can be changed when the right information is provided clearly. We may assume that people simply don't want to follow our advice when, in fact, they don't understand the situation in the same way that we do. Ask yourself how you can demonstrate it more clearly.

They also demonstrate why it is important to engage people's emotional side in order to build momentum. If a person doesn't feel that change will have a worthwhile benefit they will resist. It's human nature. But when the emotional side of us is engaged, a great deal can be accomplished.

Finally they talk about one of the greatest ways to facilitate change - shaping the path. This speaks of environmental changes. This may be as simple as hiding the large plates and using only the smaller ones if your goal is to lose weight. Or it may mean using a two-step switch that requires two hands to activate for dangerous equipment in order to keep hands clear.

There are great examples in this book of ordinary people who were able to bring about radical change.
  • Medical interns who defeated an entrenched medical practice that was endangering lives.
  • A home-organizing specialist who developed a simple technique to overcome the dread of housekeeping.
  • The manager who reversed the reputation of a customer-support team from failures into standard-bearers.
This book is well worth the read for anyone who leads people, because leadership is all about facilitating change. If you have some changes that you need to make in your life, this may be helpful to you as well. For those who know me, do you think it's a coincidence that my desk and office are now clean for the first time in recent memory? I think not!

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Thursday, March 14, 2013

Can We Talk About It?
It was Timothy Keller, author and pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, who wrote that “Tolerance isn't about not having beliefs. It's about how your beliefs lead you to treat people who disagree with you.” We all nod our heads in agreement as we read, but this is not what we Canadians popularly understand when we speak of tolerance.

Tolerance, for many in Canada, has come to mean an unquestioning acceptance of any and all viewpoints - excepting perhaps that of traditional Christianity. There has been a remarkable trend in mass media, social media, and human rights tribunals towards the muzzling of viewpoints that are not "tolerant." But what do we mean by that?

The dictionary definition says that tolerance is: "The ability or willingness to tolerate something, in particular the existence of opinions or behavior that one does not necessarily agree with." It is akin to the old saying by Evelyn Beatrice Hall that "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." This, I believe, is necessary in a civil society: thoughtful debate in the free marketplace of ideas.

We, in Canada, have largely lost this ability. (Though, admittedly, social media is turning those tables, for better or worse.) We find, for example, at Ryerson University in Toronto where a young woman, wanting to establish a "Men's Issues" club, was denied permission by the Student's Union. This is not new, but it's usually pro-life groups that are shut down in our universities. In our Human Rights tribunals, it tends to be outspoken critics of hot-button issues related to homosexuality or Islam that are singled out. 

We have blindly accepted assumptions and believed lies, which have then influenced social policy. It is commonly held in Canadian society that all religions are basically the same. Therefore, criticizing a religion is considered out of bounds, unless, of course, you're talking about majoritarian Christianity. So, some unquestioningly accept that Muslims ought to be able to practice their religion the way they see fit. This lead to the wrong-headed suggestion in 2004 that Islamic Sharia law should be instituted in the Muslim community in Ontario through tribunals. 

The reasoning was that since Christian protestants and Catholics could use religious tribunals to settle disputes, they ought to be able to as well. But, again, this ignores the fundamental differences between the brand of Muslim faith, practiced in most majority Muslim nations around the world, and that of Christianity. In the minds of our "tolerant" society, the only "fair" response was to ban all religious tribunals. This happened in 2005. 

There are too many rabbit trails to pursue on this issue, but my point is this: it's time to re-institute the civil public square. Perhaps this is being done through social media, but my hope is that we can truly begin to dialogue in the mainstream about meaningful issues.There are some principles that I've tried to put into practice in my life that have helped me; perhaps they can help someone else.

Everyone is worthy of respect.
I might not like you, but it doesn't mean that I can't treat you with respect. I can and should separate what you are saying and what you represent from how I treat you. As long as you are civil and not abusive, we can continue to dialogue. When people start calling names, that tells me they've run out of ideas. We don't have to agree about everything to be friends.

Everyone has the right to be heard.
The truth is, some people's views are downright offensive, but we live in a free society. Our freedoms ought to be limited when we do real harm to others. As someone has said, "My freedom to swing my arm ends at your nose." The caveat ought to be, once again, that we speak respectfully to one another. (Perhaps this lesson could be taught in our provincial and federal legislatures.) 

I believe that one of the greatest challenges to our free society is political correctness. A great many people feel as though they cannot be heard because someone has decided that an issue is off-limits. The most obvious example to me is the absolute refusal of the mainstream media to allow a pro-life perspective to have any meaningful airtime. But, once again, I digress.

Everyone should be faithful to the facts.
It's too easy to throw out facts and figures, but are they true? As they say, 99% of all statistics are made up on the spot. When we play fast and loose with the truth we ought to be held to account for it. While there will be honest differences of opinion, they are usually over the interpretation of the facts.

This last part is for Christians. As followers of Christ we have an added responsibility to represent Him well. That means, regardless of the situation and circumstances, we are to treat others the way that we would like to be treated ourselves. Paul tells us to "speak the truth in love." While we do have a responsibility to stand up for the truth, the Biblical path has always been the high road. Remember, Mother Teresa and the Westboro Baptist Church (those who picket funerals and hate homosexuals), both claimed to be following Christ. Which do you think was truly following Christ's example?
The following is most often attributed to Mother Teresa, but was actually written by Kent M. Keith. Either way, it's good advice. 
“People are often unreasonable and self-centered. Forgive them anyway.
If you are kind, people may accuse you of ulterior motives. Be kind anyway.
If you are honest, people may cheat you. Be honest anyway.
If you find happiness, people may be jealous. Be happy anyway.
The good you do today may be forgotten tomorrow. Do good anyway.
Give the world the best you have and it may never be enough. Give your best anyway.
For you see, in the end, it is between you and God. It was never between you and them anyway.” 

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Friday, March 01, 2013

What It's All About Muggeridge was one of the greatest journalists of the 20th century, covering most of the major events that occurred. With his unique perspective, he had opportunity to discern trends and fads and separate them from that which lasts. The following quote is my favorite quote from him, indicating the ultimate truth that he discovered after decades of searching the world and all of its cultures and great religions and civilizations. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.  

“We look back upon history and what do we see? Empires rising and falling, revolutions and counter-revolutions, wealth accumulating and wealth dispersed, one nation dominant and then another. Shakespeare speaks of ‘the rise and fall of great ones that ebb and flow with the moon.’
“I look back on my own fellow countrymen ruling over a quarter of the world, the great majority of them convinced, in the words of what is still a favorite song, that, ‘God who’s made the mighty would make them mightier yet.’ I’ve heard a crazed, cracked Austrian announce to the world the establishment of a German Reich that would last a thousand years; an Italian clown announce that he would restart the calendar to begin his own ascension to power. I’ve heard a murderous Georgian brigand in the Kremlin acclaimed by the intellectual elite of the world as a wiser than Solomon,more humane than Marcus Aurelius, more enlightened than Ashoka. I’ve seen America wealthier and in terms of weaponry, more powerful than the rest of the world put together, so that had the American people desired, could have outdone an Alexander or a Julius Caesar in the range and scale of their conquests.

“All in one lifetime.All in one lifetime. All gone with the wind. England part of a tiny island off the coast of Europe, threatened with dismemberment and even bankruptcy. Hitler and Mussolini dead, remembered only in infamy. Stalin a forbidden name in the regime he helped found and dominate for some three decades. America haunted by fears of running out of those precious fluids that keep her motorways roaring, and the smog settling, with troubled memories of a disastrous campaign in Vietnam, and the victories of the Don Quixotes of the media as they charged the windmills of Watergate.

“All in one lifetime, all gone. Gone with the wind.”

“Behind the debris of these self-styled, sullen supermen and imperial diplomatists, there stands the gigantic figure of one person, because of whom, by whom, in whom, and through whom alone mankind might still have hope. The person of Jesus Christ.”

-Malcolm Muggeridge

 (24 March 1903 – 14 November 1990)

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