The Other Half of Church: Christian Community, Brain Science, and Overcoming Spiritual Stagnation by Jim Wilder and Michel Hendricks

The Other half of the church cover imageSummary: A look at whole-brained discipleship which uses insights from recent neuroscience to help develop Christian maturity. 

A good friend recommended The Other Half of the Church to me about a year ago, and I have only recently gotten around to reading it. Many insights were not new to me because of work that either my wife or I have done regarding parenting, trauma, and attachment, or child development. I want to start with the fact that overall, I am glad that this book was written, and I commend it, even if I am going to spend most of my time discussing areas where I have concerns. The insights here into character development, group identity and its role in correction, and deep relationships are all important. Because of my training as a spiritual director and a couple of professional associations of spiritual directors which I am a member of, I know that more academic books in similar areas are being written. No book can address all of the nuance and potential areas of misunderstanding, so I am looking forward to reading more books to address different aspects.

This is a book that is co-written by Jim Wilder and Michael Hendricks. Much of the book is written in Hendrick’s voice, and he relates insights about spiritual formation and brain science from Jim Wilder. Part of what I appreciate about the framing of this book is that it is intentionally oriented toward a reader unfamiliar with the science. It is very accessible, and the authors know that stories are necessary to communicate not just the information but the meaning behind it.

Many will come to The Other Half of the Church with some background from gentle parenting (Whole Brained Child, Brain-Body Parenting, etc.) or insights from trauma, attachment, or adult emotional development. In many ways, I think discipleship is a bit late to the game with these insights. I also think that from my experience (which is obviously limited), many of my Gen X cohort or the Baby Boomers are less likely to have exposure to this type of whole-brained approach than the Millennial parents who have been at the forefront of the Gentle Parenting movement. Millennials are much more aware of trauma, abuse, and the science around those realities, which, again, have some overlap with the science discussed here.

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Our Unforming: De-Westernizing Spiritual Formation by Cindy S Lee

Our Unforming cover imageSummary: Exploring how our spiritual formation needs to be decoupled from western culture.

I am not sure I can describe Our Unforming better than an edited quote from the introduction.

“For all my life, I’ve read books on spiritual formation written by white authors and internalized their experiences of God as the norm and even as the authority. In recent centuries, our spiritual formation resources and teachings have primarily come from Western spiritual traditions. In that process, Western voices have generalized what spiritual formation is for all of us. The way we teach formation in the church is heavily influenced by Western values—such as individuality, dualism, and linear thinking—and Western history like colonialism, the Enlightenment, and industrialization. Even the African roots of early church fathers and mothers have often been ignored when interpreted through a white male lens…I want to untangle and de-westernize the ways my soul has been distorted by the disproportionate influence of Western authority in the church. This does not mean disregarding our long and rich history of Christian spiritual traditions. Rather, we need to recognize that our current understanding of spiritual formation is limited because it was developed under a dominant Western cultural tradition.

Our Unforming is largely written to racial minority Christians who are grappling with the ways that they have distorted themselves to fit into western or white molds. But Cindy Lee is also writing for people like me (a middle-aged, middle-class, white, male, heterosexual, seminary-trained spiritual director). She is pointing out areas where our language and practice of spiritual formation may be more culturally constrained than we understand. It complements books like Karen Swallow Prior’s Evangelical Imagination (about how many of our Evangelical norms are rooted in Victorian culture) or Barbara Holmes’Joy Unspeakable about the particular contemplative practices of the Black church. And if pastors or spiritual directors are going to work in diverse communities, they need to be aware of where their biases toward white or western normative ideas or practices are constraining their ability to serve the people they serve.

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Ownership by Sean McGever

Ownership by Sean McGever cover imageSummary: An exercise in discernment by exploring the legacy of three Christians of the same era and their relationship to slavery. 

I read Ownership by Sean McGever with an eye on how he handles the topic of discernment, even though the word discernment was not the focus. Over the past year, I have read about a dozen books on discernment, trying to grapple with the purpose and limitations of Christian discernment. One of the reasons for starting this project was reading Henri Nouwen’s book Discernment and how he grappled with discernment for himself. I am not going to rehash that post again, but while Nouwen received spiritual guidance and help from a pair of priests, after the death of all three and about ten years after the book was published, it became more widely known that the two priests that Nouwen confided in were serial sexual and spiritual abusers. Nouwen described them as some of the most holy men he had known. Nouwen’s discernment about those men is a good reminder of the limitations of our discernment, but also that historical judgment and tools can be helpful as a means of helping to see our natural limitations of perspective.

McGever makes the simple but important point that our geographic and social location impacts our decision-making (and discernment) because it impacts how we see choices. None of Edwards, Whitfield, or Wesley’s grandparents owned slaves because the slave trade was not yet in wide effect. However, the difference between whether their grandchildren owned slaves was significantly impacted by whether they were in England or the US. Geography and social location always impact choices.

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The Rise and Fall of Dispensationalism by Daniel Hummel

The Rise and Fall of Dispensationalism by Daniel Hummel cover imageSummary: A history of Dispensationalism from Darby to pop culture. 

I did not grow up in a strongly dispensationalist church. But as I reflected throughout the book, I was surprised to learn how many institutions, communities, and preachers who were important to me were influenced by dispensationalism. The strength of The Rise and Fall of Dispensationalism is that it does not fall into caricature but is carefully nuanced about the various streams of Christianity influenced by dispensationalism.

As someone who was a child and teen in the late 70s and early ’80s, I was aware of movies like The Thief in the Night, even if I was too young to be strongly influenced by them. I know several people who were freaked out by the scare tactics of that era of dispensationalism, but I tended toward questions or avoidance rather than direct fear. I was more attracted to “Scholastic Dispensationalism” than pop culture dispensationalism. A friend of mine’s was a pastor’s kid at a local Evangelical Free Church. I went to a lot of their youth group activities, and I can remember going to their annual “prophecy conferences” and can remember the charts and explanations of the details of the end times as a teen and preteen. That nearly gnostic idea of the secrets that you can learn if you only follow the right teachers were more of a temptation to me.

I am hesitant to simplify because the complex story is so interesting, but the overly simplified story is that from Darby to Moody to fundamentalism to the rise of the scholastic Dispensationalists to the pop culture dispensationalists, there was an almost continual simplification of the ideas of dispensationalism from a complex system of anti-institutionalist thought toward simpler and simpler premillennialism. That simplified story is too simple, but there is a thread there that as people found parts of the theological ideas to accept and parts to discard, the beloved parts by the earlier generation were usually discarded in favor of an easier-to-explain system.

A simple chart or image is more attractive than a complex multi-page chart. But the thicker theological thinking went in the opposite direction. Mark Noll’s Scandal of the Evangelical Mind is that there is not much of an Evangelical mind, but that does seem to be what is shown here. While movements tried to take the more theological seriously, the dominant streams of dispensationalism were the imagery of an imminent return of Christ, which contributed to a passion to evangelize and reach the world for Christ.

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The Enneagram of Discernment by Drew Moser

Enneagram of Discernment cover imageSummary: Helpful thinking about the ways that enneagram impacts discernment.

In my ongoing reading about discernment, this was a book that I found on Kindle Unlimited. I have a subscription to Kindle Unlimited, but mostly it is used by my parents or kids, who share my Kindle account. But there are cases like this where I find a book in my reading area and it is always nice to borrow it instead of purchasing.

I am mixed on the enneagram. I think that  to the extent that someone thinks that it is helpful and accurate in describing them, then it can be helpful to give language around personality types. On the other hand, I also think there is not a lot underlying enneagram and any system of categories has limitations because no system like this will perfectly describe someone. It is about tendencies and rough categories.

What I like about the enneagram is that it intentionally is focuses on health, moving toward healthy interactions, not simply description. It also recognizes that those aspects of personality that are strengths are also weaknesses when pushed or taken too far. There are healthy expressions of personality and our internal tendencies and unhealthy expressions.

The format of this book is unique and helpful. You can get a general book that has everything for all types. Or you can get a type-specific book that has the main content of the book but also has an end section focusing on just that type. In my case, I got the type 5 book and it has about 160 pages of main content and then a chapter that summarizes and focuses on just type five (or your specific type.) I think type five describes me pretty well, and so I read the whole book, but for those who are just interested in your type, especially if you are borrowing it from Kindle Unlimited, the focused chapter on your type is about 30 pages of summary that I think you can get most of the understanding from in a short time. You will get more detail if you read the whole book and you will see how your type fits into the larger system of the enneagram. If you are aware of spouses, friends or coworkers’ enneagram types, then the larger book can also help  you see how your type and their types interact.

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The Sparrow: A Novel by Mary Doria Russell (2nd Reading)

The Sparrow cover imageSummary: A group mostly made up of Jesuits discovers that another world with intelligent creatures exists and secretly decides to visit it; tragedy ensues.

I previously read The Sparrow about six years ago. In my ongoing reading about Discernment, it was a fiction book that was suggested to me as one that looks at discernment, so I put it back on my list to reread, but a Holy Post discussion about The Sparrow made me decide to pick it up when I did.

As I have been reading various ways to think about Discernment, I keep coming up against the tension between those who see discernment primarily as Christian decision-making, those who see it as a set of tools or a process that includes decision-making, and those who see it primarily as seeking after God. I am definitely in the latter camp. I know these are not mutually exclusive ways to think about discernment, but I do tend to think of them as the three modes where one is prioritized.

I started a book on discernment a couple of weeks ago, and I could not make it through the first chapter because it approached discernment as a tool that was more similar to an incantation to control God or to get God to reveal himself more than a method to help us understand who God is. This problem is part of why I have been reading about discernment, to help figure out where it seems to go wrong. Discernment is often invoked in discussions of spiritual warfare, and people who regularly talk about spiritual warfare seem more likely to believe in various conspiracy theories. The very nature of belief in conspiracy theories makes me distrust your perception of discernment.

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Children of God: A Novel by Mary Doria Russell (2nd Reading)

Summary: The second half of the story of The Sparrow.

When I first read The Sparrow, I did not realize that Children of God was actually part two of the book. I thought it was a sequel, but instead, it should be considered the second half of a single story. Because of this, I did not read Children of God until two years after I read The Sparrow. It was not until re-reading that I realized how much those two years impacted my understanding. This is a single story.

The book opens immediately after the end of The Sparrow. The reader and the characters think that they understand what happened on Rahkat (the other world that they traveled to.) But one way you should prepare to read Children of God is to think of it as an explanation of all the things misunderstood in The Sparrow. This is an alien contact story. Culture and biology are different. And even when Sandoz thinks he understands the language as a linguist, there are mistakes and misunderstandings.

Sandoz was traumatized in The Sparrow, and multiple stages of healing come throughout the Children of God. It is not that he “forgets” his pain and trauma. But he does come to terms with it in some ways over time. This does bring up my main concern about The Children of God. In my post about The Sparrow, I somewhat minimized this as a book about the problem of evil, which is still a significant theme within The Children of God. I do not believe there is a solution to the problem of evil. However, one method of dealing with the problem of evil is to suggest that God was behind everything to accomplish the greater good. While I think there is some space for seeing a different plan than what we had or that we misunderstood God’s plan, I get concerned with “making things come out right.”

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CS Lewis in America by Mark Noll

Summary: Tracking the history of how Lewis was received in the United States.

Not using these words, it seems that Noll is making the case that while Evangelicals may be defined as those who love Billy Graham, ecumenicals may be defined as those who love CS Lewis. Noll traces the response in the United States over three chapters. US Catholics first promoted (and published) Lewis in the US. The secular media and academy also responded to Lewis. And then mainline Protestants and finally, the Fundamentalists and Neo-Orthodox. Noll didn’t explicitly say that ecumenical Christians are the ones who like Lewis, but that does seem to be his point. Within Catholics, Mainline Protestants, and fundamentalists, some are less interested in moving outside of their own circle of Christians. But in some ways, the Neo-Evangelicals that were breaking away from Fundamentalists were, as a movement, more ecumenical, and while they found Lewis later, their embrace was in some ways because of Lewis’ ecumenical approach that sought to use common reasoning and logic and public intellectual resources to make the case for Christianity.

Again, this was not a part of Noll’s book, but I do think that it is relevant to talk about the recent movements within SBC, PCA, and ANCA to adopt more theologically conservative positions on women in ministry as an example of a movement toward fundamentalist positions. I had Noll for three classes between college and seminary. When I was in seminary, working for a local SBC association and going to a mainline seminary, there was a discussion about whether SBC should be considered Evangelical or Fundamentalist. Even in the mid-90s, some people in SBC embraced the term fundamentalist. Many of the sociologists of religion who were commenting on the question at the time (as I remember it) were noting the tensions between those SBC Evangelicals who were more ecumenical in orientation and those SBC fundamentalists who were not sure of the Christianity of those outside of SBC.

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The Proof of the Pudding by Rhys Bowen (Royal Spyness Mystery #17)

The Proof of the Pudding by Rhys Bowen cover imageSummary: A very pregnant Georgie hosts her first dinner party with her new chef and that leads to a new mystery. 

I enjoy reading long series as long as I do not get too bored with the characters. The Royal Spyness series is in the 17th book, similar to the Inspector Gamache series. They are very different types of mysteries. The Royal Spyness series is very much a light cozy mystery series. There is almost always a murder, but Bowen leans into cozy feel of the series. The series took a long time to get from Georgie having a romantic interest to marriage and now her first baby. I am enjoying a more confident Georgie.

Rhys Bowen has referenced classic mysteries before, there are several references to Dorothy Sayers books. And this one both references Agatha Christie’s books and has Agatha Christie as a dinner party guest who helps to solve the mystery. That could feel gimmicky, but it is handled well here, and I thought it helped move Georgie to a more healthy, maturing adult. She is not in her early 20s anymore. She is married and will have a baby by the end of this book (that is really not a spoiler).

I appriciate that Darcy (her husband who works as an off the books spy for the British Foreign Office) does not try to protect her and keep her away from murder here, but instead encourages her to solve the crime. There is a balance between realism of a woman in the 1930s and the reality of a modern reader who expects women to be able to act without supervision at all times.

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If God Still Breathes, Why Can’t I?: Black Lives Matter and Biblical Authority by Angela N Parker

If God Still Breathes, Why Can't I?: Black Lives Matter and Biblical Authority by Angela N Parker cover imageSummary: An introduction to hermeneutics through the lens of Womanist Biblical methods.

Generally, when I read a book, I try to write about it within a few days. This has become a spiritual practice of mine, not just because I like to encourage reading but also because I want to incorporate what I am learning. Part of that incorporation is writing about the book so that I can put on paper what was important to me. But sometimes, I get busy with my paying work or other aspects of life, and at some point, I am just too far away from a book to do it justice. In the case of If God Still Breathes, Why Can’t I? I read it in February 2022 and then again in December 2022. It was certainly one of my favorite books of 2022, but because I hadn’t written about it, it was hard to talk about why succinctly.

I have had a running book club since 2020 or 2021, depending on whether you count the Be the Bridge groups that it grew out of or the later discussion of Color of Compromise that started an actual book club. Since then, I am told we have discussed 12 books. I have wanted to get a group to talk about If God Still Breathes for a while, and this spring seemed like a good time.

If God Still Breathes, Why Can’t I? is a fairly short book, only 128 pages and about 3 hours. But there is some weight to it. It was the most challenging book we have tackled so far. Most of the group was new to Womanist thought, so there was that aspect of difficulty. Only a couple of other group members had taken formal college-level Bible classes either. Mixing womanist thinking and biblical hermeneutics introduced many in the group to a lot of new vocabulary. One of the members expressed how happy he was to be reading on Kindle because there is a built-in dictionary.

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