Fundamentalists often hear and repeat, “My Bible is all I need.” And while I understand and affirm the sentiment that God’s Word is well. . . . GOD’s WORD, the expression is full of hubris. It’s not that God’s Word is incomplete or inaccurate or insufficient. We are. It’s the old four blind men and the elephant problem. If that Eastern example doesn’t do it for you, there’s always good ol’ Francis Bacon. In sum, idols distract us. We’re blinded by our infirmed humanity (idols of the tribe), our idiosyncratic personhood (idols of the cave), our reified culture (idols of the marketplace), and our inadequate education (idols of the theatre). One way of seeing around those idols that stand in our way of understanding God’s Wor(l)d is through a iron-sharpening looking outside of ourselves. Otherwise, we just see ourselves in Scripture instead of seeing God. That’s why God gave us the Church — to edify each other and point out our blindspots. We’re not islands unto ourselves. Or we shouldn’t be!
And that’s what these books did for me. Reading them is an Ebenezer — a monument to seeing my presumptions and my own microculture as badly flawed. All these books are, ironically enough, within the conservative Evangelical hermeneutic. I have some mainline liberal Protestant friends who read them and were left with only a “meh!” These don’t speak to them. But they do speak to us and are eye-opening, earth-shaking, Church-building, and Christ-centered.
I got into trouble for reading and for talking about these books. So if you want to upset the Powers that Be, read them. If you’re content with things as they are, avoid them like the plague. Trust me.
Heartfelt Discipline by Clay Clarkson. Clarkson set out to prove that the usual punitive advice that circulates in conservative Evangelical circles is from Scripture. He found out otherwise. That negative testimony is pretty persuasive. His basic argument is that if you take the rod verses totally literally (and I’m not saying that Proverbs are intended to be absolutely literal. I mean, does a stitch in time literally save nine?), then you would beat with a rod on the back (not with a hand on the bottom) of a na’ar — 5-20 (some say 15-20) year old boy (and not on an eight-month old baby!!!).
Grace-Based Parenting by Tim Kimmel. Kimmel is a great alternative to the punitive monopoly in Evangelical parenting advice books. He’s experienced, logical, and biblical. He asserts that all children need a secure love, a significant purpose, and a strong hope. They need the freedom to be different, vulnerable, candid, and to make mistakes. All that’s only possible with Grace as a guide. I can’t say enough good about this book. I found myself seeing God and my responsibilities to my sons in a whole new way.
Why Christian Kids Rebel by Tim Kimmel. Here Kimmel scared me. I saw so many of my students in his words. It changed the way I talked and interacted with them. He describes Compulsory Christianity (where the religious practices become a hobby for the family. Like that pirate family on Wife Swap.), Cliché Christianity (the kind of life foregrounded in Christian education, according to Kimmel. “The problem lay in the fact that everything about the school was designed to prop up your ability to appear spiritual. With very little effort, you could act and talk ‘Christian.'”), Comfortable Christianity (an easy Prayer-of-Jabez kind of focus on material acquisition and loss), Cocoon Christianity (a.k.a. The Village. Shyamalan showed us how well that worked.), and Compromised Christianity (A parent living under the veneer of a top-notch Christian but who abuses his family and drives them away from the faith. Notice that the compromise is not in whether or not the family watches movies or plays video games, but in whether the mom and dad see themselves as needing a daily dose of the Gospel as much as their kids.).
What will always ring in my memory is his chapter on the Prodigal Son. I had never heard the story explained in that way. God, as the perfect Parent in the story, acts differently than the Clueless parent, EMT parent, or the Special Forces parent. It really hits “home” when Kimmel points out that in contrast to God’s way of parenting us and welcoming us back after our sin, “some [prodigal] kids never go home because they can’t recall their parents dealing with them in understanding, patience, and grace” (66).
And I saw so much of a very familiar discipline system in his critique of “Special Forces Parenting”:
Families don’t live in war zones. If there were any kind of zone a family should be living in, it would be a grace zone. Unfortunately, if Special Forces-type parents aren’t careful, they can create a war zone in their child’s heart.
There was a time when this autocratic style of parenting actually worked. The gears of industry and the wheels of commerce turned under the inertia of an autocratic system. . . .
Special Forces parenting makes a lot of noise, offers up a lot of threats, and tries to rule by intimidation. When it’s time to deal with a problem in a child’s life, these SF parents love to pull out the heavy artillery and often turn to some form of punishment. Unfortunately, that tends to miscarry with overuse. That’s because punishment is one of the least effective forms of correction. Why? Lots of reasons.
Punishment is more about getting even or balancing the score than it is about correction. It’s also about communicating who is boss. But it is ineffective because it’s not the way our world deals with short-comings. . . .
As we’ll see in the story of the prodigal son, the most effective form of correction is consequences. And the more natural the consequences, the better. That’s the way the real world operates, that’s the way God operates, and that’s the method most helpful to rebellious kids in figuring out why what they are doing is unacceptable.
Another reason why the autocratic control of a Special Forces parent doesn’t work well over time is because it conditions children to respond to outside voices and forces in their lives. They get a little bigger and a little older and it’s easy for them to start submitting to the barking orders of overbearing boyfriends or girlfriends or the outspoken voice of the crowd. I guess you kind of figured out that Special Forces parents make it easy for their kids to find their way into rebellious lifestyles. (56-58)
Families Where Grace is in Place by Jeff VanVonderen. This book jarred us both from the unbiblical errors and extra-biblical extremes that run rampant in our previous life. Most startling is VanVonderen‘s rather matter-of-fact correction that the Bible doesn’t say that I’m supposed to make my husband love me, nor is he supposed to make me submit. I have my responsibility to submit, and he has his responsibility to love. That’s our division of labor, so to speak.
The same goes with parents and children. My responsibility to not provoke my sons to wrath is actually greater than their responsibility to obey/honor me. I can’t make them honor me, but I need to act honorably. VanVonderen was the first for me that made that very simple, mind-blowing point.
Tired of Trying to Measure Up by Jeff VanVonderen. In talking about this book, I might even say “it all started with reading VanVonderen.” It still makes me giggle that whenever I mention this title to anyone inside fundamentalism (even those at the very “top”), the reaction to the title is always the same — a jaw-dropping, eye-rolling, sighing, empathetic, but sardonic laugh that says “Ha! Somebody gets it!”
This book got me into some deep trouble. It so poignantly speaks to the problems in our former life that I bought a dozen copies and had them stacked on my desk, ready to give away to the next frustrated student or colleague that unloaded on me (and yes, I gave them all away quite quickly). Once this got up the food chain, the Powers that Be weren’t pleased. The Gospel is usually unsettling.
On October 16, 2006, I was told to stop recommending this book. I agreed. I said, “I figured you would ask me that, and I’m okay with that. I’ll just point people to Romans and Galatians instead.” Tee-hee. My little joke got lost, I think. Later I was told that VanVonderen had “very dangerous theology.” In response to that declaration, I smiled and said, “We’ll have to agree to disagree on that point.”
Go see and read for yourself why it would be unsettling or dangerous. Fact is, it’s pretty standard stuff for the rest of Christendom. It’s fundamentalism that’s out-of-sync with the Bible. That fact alone might make you stop reading me. I understand. I remember that feeling too.
Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse by Jeff VanVonderen and David Johnson. I’ve heard from other believers around the world that many autocratic Christian leaders despise this book. Of course they do! I read it the first time in a rather cursory fashion. I’ll admit it, I first came to the book trying to deconstruct the definition of “spiritual abuse.” Some descriptions just sound like bad management — something that could happen at Disney or Microsoft. But I found in VanVonderen and Johnson, who coined the term, a very substantial case. I was still in denial though. Not here, right? No, no. . . . not here. Please, please not here.
On the second reading though, I wept.
Soul Survivor by Phil Yancey. Yancey is hands-down an excellent writer. He’s just a joy to read. And this is the first book of his I read in the Fall, 2006, thanks to my old buddy’s recommendation. While he introduced me to Chesterton and Dostoevsky, I couldn’t shake his rebuke of Southern conservative Evangelical organizations for never repenting of their racist sins of the past. Sigh. . . .
What’s so Amazing About Grace? by Phil Yancey. Yancey at his finest. Babette’s Feast is now one of my favorite films after Yancey explained its mirroring of Christ’s gracious love feast within a harsh, cold, unhappily pious world. In the middle of all our abuse in that last year, I couldn’t forget Babette’s culinary demonstration of grace. If you can only read one chapter, though, read the “The New Math of Grace.” God’s calculator defies any one that we create. Ironically enough, Yancey says he got in trouble for the chapter/article as well. We Christians are so protective of the status quo.
With these books, I found a story of redemption in Scripture that I had never heard before. And I realized that the Church had been proclaiming this Good News for millennia, independent of my sliver of Christendom. I discovered the Gospel anew.
And that led to another book. . . . But we’ll talk about that in a future post.
[tags]Phil Yancey, Jeff VanVonderen, Tim Kimmel, Clay Clarkson, David Johnson, Francis Bacon[/tags]