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 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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It Seemed Good to the Holy Spirit and to Us: Acts, Discernment, and the Mission of God by Mark Love

It Seemed Good to the Holy Spirit and to Us: Acts, Discernment, and the Mission of God cover imageSummary: An exploration of the role of discernment in the first 15 chapters of Acts. 

The title of the book, It Seemed Good to the Holy Spirit and To Us is taken from Acts 15:28, which is part of the letter written to the gentile Christians after the Acts 15 council. After the council, this letter summarized what had been decided. What is clear from the context is that this was not simply a decision of a single leader, or a small group of leaders, but of the broader church. The main thrust of It Seemed God to the Holy Spirit and To Us is to explore the book of Acts to get clues into how the early church practiced discernment and how other spiritual and relational practices in the church helped to facilitate that group discernment process.

Mark Love is intentionally exploring these early church practices for the purpose of helping the modern church learn from them. So this is not just a biblical studies book, but a book for the church today. Central to his thesis is that, “…Pentecost gives birth to…a community living in [a] new social arrangement of the kingdom of God–a church.” (p22)

I am going to quote a long passage from early in the book because I think it sets the stage for how he understand the role of the book.

“I am demonstrating several convictions I have about ministry in how I deal with these texts. First, ministry finds its life in a deep engagement with Scripture. Ministry emerges naturally through a long habitation with Scripture. Good ministry is an art, requiring a well-funded imagination. In shaping a theological imagination, Scriptures must be more than a tool one uses to solve puzzles. Instead the deep structures of texts—the way they move, their rhythms, the peculiar way they name things—must become deep structures for ministers as well. This deep imagination, related to Scripture, is exactly what we find in Acts 15 when James summarizes the discernment of the community in relation to the inclusion of Gentiles.” (p25)

Love also assumes that most churches are not designed for practicing communal discernment.

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Barth, Bonhoeffer, and Modern Politics by Joshua Mauldin

Barth, Bonhoeffer, and Modern Politics cover imageSummary: A reappraisal of Barth and Bonhoeffer’s thinking around modernity and politics.

I regularly recommend the Audible Plus lending library, where Audible members can borrow several thousand audiobooks at no additional costs beyond the membership. Barth, Bonhoeffer, and Modern Politics is a book that has been on my to-read list for a while, but currently, the Kindle version is over $70, and the Hardcover is $66. While I borrowed the audiobook, if I had purchased it, it was less than $10 when I picked it up. I am never going to make sense of that type of pricing disparity.

I was glad I listened to it, even if it may be a book that would be better read in print. It was a helpful book to think about and even had some aspect of discernment (and an ongoing reading project of mine) that I had not anticipated. But I do want to note that I did not love the narration. The British narrator did not pronounce some of the names and theological, philosophical, or political terms correctly. It is not just variations between American and British pronunciations. More importantly, I thought the tone of the narration was just off, but not so much that I didn’t listen to the whole book in just a few days.

Mauldin is concerned about the state of democracy and is using Barth’s and Bonhoeffer’s political thought to grapple with how they addressed the changes in Germany. To start, Mauldin looks at the critiques of modernity by Brad Gregory, Alasdair MacIntyre, and Stanley Hauerwas. I read After Virtue recently and have read several books by Hauerwas over the years. However, I did not have any background on Brad Gregory. The introduction to their ideas was thorough enough that I felt like I was clear.

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Discerning the Voice of God: How to Recognize When He Speaks by Priscilla Shirer

Discerning the Voice of God: How to Recognize When He Speaks cover imageSummary: Discerning the Voice of God is a spiritual discipline that can be learned.

I am about eight months into a project to understand what people mean when they talk about discernment in the Christian context and how it can be learned and discussed. If you include the books that I read as part of my training to become a spiritual director and my previous general interest reading, I have read about two dozen books, many of them more than once, on the topic of discernment. I certainly do not believe that I have a clear understanding of all aspects of discernment. I continue to find new aspects of discernment that I had not thought about. And I have about two dozen more books on my list. But I have a handle on some aspects of it that I have tentatively committed to. That matters because in the case of Discerning the Voice of God, there are many areas of agreement, but my problems primarily come in three areas and my tentative commitments influence those.

First I want to mention the good. She is right that we can learn about discernment. And I think she is right to suggest that goal of discernment is to see is not to see if we will make the wrong choice. This quote from toward the end of the book I think is right.

“But here’s what I want to encourage in you—the big message of this chapter, perhaps the big message of this book. Try never to forget it. Here it is … There’s no code for you to crack. No puzzle He’s waiting for you to put together. No stick He’s dangling in your peripheral vision, then snatching away when you turn your head toward it. He’s not sitting up in heaven with the cameras rolling and stopwatches ticking, testing whether or not you’re spiritually sharp enough to figure out the next move He wants you to make.”

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Praying With Discernment by Stephen Swihart

Praying With Discernment cover imageSummary: The way to pray better is to ask the holy spirit to give you the words.

I have been reading a wide range of books about discernment. While I am broadly interested in prayer, my focus in reading Praying With Discernment was on the discernment part, not the prayer part. I knew this was a self-published book and would likely disagree with much of it. I want to ensure I am not ignoring ideas about discernment because they come from streams of Christianity I am less attracted to.

This book is filled with stories of miracles. I have read many similar stories of praying for miracles and seeing them come to pass. I have personally seen some of those miracles, and I have, at times, been very attracted to the power of prayer shown in this book. I have listened to preachers advocate for the expression of power in prayer as a means of evangelism. But I have also watched the distorting effect of prayer when discernment seems to get lost.

I am also put off by some of the frivolousness of some of the prayers. This next story is an example.

“On another occasion, this friend took a small group with him to share their testimonies at a church. Before they arrived at their destination, they stopped for breakfast. Shortly after entering the restaurant the sky turned dark and it began to rain. In fact, it rained so hard that it would be impossible for any of them to get to the car without becoming completely drenched. When it was time to leave, my friend calmly and confidently said, “It will stop raining when we reach the front door. Let’s go.” Everyone got up and went to the front door. The instant the first person touched the door it stopped raining! Everyone got in the car without a drop of rain falling on them.”

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Knowing Christ Today: Why We Can Trust Spiritual Knowledge by Dallas Willard

Knowing Christ Today: Why We Can Trust Spiritual Knowledge cover imageSummary: Knowledge is not simply ideas that can be tested (naturalistic concepts) but also includes spiritual knowledge. 

I read Knowing Christ Today with a particular lens and purpose. I have been on a reading project to understand the Christian concept of discernment better. Part of what has arisen in my look at discernment is the role of the Holy Spirit and that type of spiritual confirmation that is not quite tangible through naturalism’s perspective on knowledge or experience. In the language of Ignatius, it is the consultation and desolation that you feel drawing you toward or away from Christ.

I picked up Knowing Christ Today over a decade ago when it was on sale on Kindle, but I have never read it. I had a long drive, so I also purchased the audiobook version to listen to while driving. I have a complicated relationship with Dallas Williard, which is why I think I had not read this previously. I very much respect his role in reawakening attention to the spiritual disciplines. But I also feel like we talk past one another quite a bit. I am a bit allergic to apologetics. While Willard believes that apologetics is best used to help Christians feel confident in their faith (not evangelism) and that he believes that change in behavior does have a relationship to our belief about the world (both of which I agree with), I still end up arguing with him (on the side of the anti-theist positions) when he veers into apologetics.

I have not read Alvin Plantinga, but I think that is part of who Willard is building on here as he develops the idea that spiritual knowledge is a valid form of knowledge. That narrow point, I think, is true; spiritual knowledge is a valid form of knowledge. But that does not really help to evaluate what spiritual knowledge is or when it is rightly invoked. It does not help in evaluating spiritual knowledge of Christianity compared to other religious understandings of spiritual knowledge or different perspectives within Christianity on spiritual knowledge. This means that I did not find Knowing Christ Today all that helpful to my project.

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A Quilted Life: Reflections of a Sharecropper’s Daughter by Catherine Meeks

A Quilted Life: Reflections of a Sharecropper’s Daughter by Catherine Meeks cover imageSummary: A memoir from sharecropper’s daughter to academic to retired anti-racist educator. 

I do not know how I ran across Catherine Meeks’ work. She was a professor at Mercer and then Wesleyan College. She worked as an organizer for the city of Macon and was the founder of Lane Center for Community Engagement and Service. Then, she retired in 2008 and started another career as an anti-racist trainer within the Episcopal Church, eventually founding the Absalom Jones Center for Racial Healing. She again retired from that role this past December. In 2022, she received the President Joseph R. Biden Lifetime Achievement Award and the Presidential Volunteer Service Award medal.

What I enjoy about reading memoirs and biographies is that I see the complications of lives, not just the awards or recognitions they receive. Catherine Meeks was born to a sharecropper and a teacher in rural Mississippi. Her mother worked as a teacher throughout her childhood, but it took her 18 years to finish her college degree. Her father was illiterate and died when she was a child. The background of growing up in poverty during Jim Crow matters to the rest of her story. But this is not simply a Horatio Alger story of growth and success. Esau McCaulley, in a podcast interview that I cannot find right now, talked about the problems of writing a memoir as a successful Black man. He talked about the fact that people want a happy ending. And even when there is a happy ending, the happy ending can be used as proof against those with a less happy ending.

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