BOOK REVIEW: “Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More—Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist”

Like most historical figures of the early 19th century, Hannah More is not someone I thought I would be bringing up in casual conversation. That changed soon after I started reading Karen Swallow Prior’s biography of this remarkable author, educational leader and slave-trade abolitionist.

I had heard positive buzz about how “Fierce Convictions” was a quality book, researched with academic rigor yet presented in engaging prose. However, as my interests do not include Victorian-era England, a biography about the so-called “first Victorian” Hannah More wasn’t likely to wind up on my to-read list. What eventually pushed me to grab the book for myself was when I registered for an intensive course on Christian Education and Formation at North Park Theological Seminary, and one of the pre-reading requirements was “a biography on someone who made an educative/formative impact on society.”

In terms of fulfilling that course requirement, Fierce Convictions succeeded. To offer a snapshot of what can be found in the book about education: as a child, More had a unique educational journey, living in a time when views towards female education were impoverished but nonetheless having the fortunate advantage of being raised in a family of educators. More grew up to be a educator herself with an approach to teaching that perhaps is as refreshing today as it was back then, an approach exemplified by her warning to fellow educators: “Do not fancy that a thing is good merely because it is dull” (p. 27). Yet, More’s greatest legacy within education was perhaps the numerous “Sunday schools” she established with her sister Patty. These schools brought in thousands of poor children who simply wanted to be literate, Sunday being the only day the kids had off from farming or other labor.

However, More was not just a leader in education. Within London high culture and beyond, she made a name for herself as a playwright, poet and author. For the uninitiated, Prior does a great job of explaining how More’s various works fit within More’s life and English society. My interest in More was piqued to the point of wanting…well, more More. For those of us interested in further reading, perhaps the only thing lacking here was an annotated bibliography that mapped out which of More’s works are actually timeless and which are better left for the scholars.

What has got me talking about More the most was her moderate-yet-effective politics. For example, she used her celebrity to play a major role in the abolitionist movement commonly associated with the evangelical parliamentarian William Wilberforce. More never quite identified as evangelical and remained committed to the established Church of England, and in so doing proved that ideological purity is not prerequisite for making a positive impact in society. The 21st century reader will rightfully disagree with More on a number of her sensibilities that were shy-of-progressive, such as the role of women in society or her beliefs towards class (and in these cases, Prior does a good job explaining More without excusing More). Nonetheless, the Hannah More portrayed in Fierce Convictions exemplifies the sort of bridge-builder and pragmatic leader who we could use more of in our world today.

Chapter 12, “Burdened for the Beasts”, outlines More’s concern for animals subjected to cruelty. It is unclear why there is an entire chapter dedicated to this topic (as Prior admits, “animal welfare was never a central focus of [More’s] work” p.195). Despite the importance of the issue both then and today, readers in a time crunch can pass over this chapter without interrupting the narrative flow of the biography.

With that caveat, I can sincerely recommend the whole of Fierce Convictions — not only as an enjoyable read, but as what appears to be a well-researched portrayal of a historical figure who certainly deserves more fanfare than we have given her.

Review cross-posted on Amazon.com.

Update: Dr. Prior called me out on my one point of critique. I’ll let her have the last word here.

BOOK REVIEW: “Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More—Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist”

On Decisions

On Decisions (/) is third in an ongoing series of meditations on life’s ubiquitous experiences. The first was On Notifications (!), and the second was On Questions (?).

/

“I’ve been really struggling with a decision lately.”

“With what?”

“Well, you know how my phone’s screen cracked last month? Lately, the entire thing hasn’t been powering on.  And so I have been trying to decide between simply replacing it with the same model, or going ahead and getting an upgrade.”

“Okay.”

“…and, you know, I’ve been really praying about this one. You know, whatever God wants for me, that’s what I want.”

“…what?”

/

The person in the above anecdote may or not have been the same person who told me “Jesus really doesn’t want me to have this Samsung Galaxy Tab III right now.”

It may or may not have been the same couple who, as they held their hands, proclaimed, “If it’s the Lord’s will that we be together…”

It may or not have been the same Chicagoan who, upon learning I’m from Oregon, tells me, “You know, I think the Holy Spirit is calling me to move to Portland.”

(To which I cynically respond, if they had read Blue Like Jazz lately, and they then take my seemingly psychic observation of their recent reading to be confirmation that it is time for them to make the move.)

Folks, welcome to the sort of American Christianity that looks less like gospel and more like a tenet of moralistic therapeutic deism. “God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life, except when God is needed to resolve a problem.”

Say what you want, but the issue with this ethos is that God begins to seep into the everyday problems. It soon follows that many of the most passionate Christians out there are suddenly crippled when it comes to decisions that mere mortals have been successfully making for millennia. Decisions such as buying gadgets, falling in love, or moving somewhere new.

 To which I want to wave my hands and yell, “People — stop outsourcing all your decisions upon God!”

/

Unfortunately, I’m going up against one of the most oft-quoted Scripture passages on biblical decision making.

Proverbs 3:5-6
Trust in the Lord with all your heart;
do not depend on your own understanding.
Seek his will in all you do,
and he will show you which path to take.

At first blush, these verses appear to counsel the reader to throw the weight of his decision-making upon the divine.

But I digress — for this comes from the Proverbs. A collection of sayings where piety meets tradition meets common sense. It is a book of wisdom and, as a few verses down the road from the above passage indicate, wisdom is something human beings can grasp for themselves.

Proverbs 3:13-18
Blessed are those who find wisdom,
those who gain understanding,
for she is more profitable than silver
and yields better returns than gold.

She is more precious than rubies;
nothing you desire can compare with her.
Long life is in her right hand;
in her left hand are riches and honor.

Her ways are pleasant ways,
and all her paths are peace.
She is a tree of life to those who take hold of her;
those who hold her fast will be blessed.

We may have to make tough decisions (for, as verse 12 says, “the Lord disciplines those he loves”), but God’s will is not cryptic or overly particular. It is simple: it is for the good.

My hands are still waving. I am still yelling my jeremiad, “People — stop outsourcing all your decisions upon God. Instead, avoid using warped scales of the world to make your decisions: pride, sin, greed and instant gratification. Instead, use the measurements God has given you: love, holiness, wonder and awe. Leave foolishness behind, and grasp tightly onto wisdom.”

/

Lukewarm biblical exegesis is not the only culprit. There is another reason, and it extends beyond American Christian subculture to every corner of the globe within driving distance from an airport.

Economics is the theology of the modern age and, for better or worse, the ideology of capitalism currently reigns supreme. What capitalism has believed from the onset, and the world capitalism has created in its image, is that the “invisible hand” will do its work as long as we religiously pursue our self-interest. The gears of the world, we are implicitly taught, are dependent on us choosing to “maximize our preferences.”

Today, we sin when we don’t buy the best things at the best price; do the right work for the right reward; or match our lives to the right people, places and purposes. The corresponding spirituality to this capitalist theology is to simply live a life of no regrets.

We are to make the best decisions, always.

Which, of course, is impossible.

/

Instead of critiquing this aspect of capitalism (and there is much in capitalism to critique and to praise), we decide to bring God into our mundane decisions. We use God as a sort of anesthesia to cope with the stress of decision-making, without addressing the root cause of this stress.

When we are done praying and feel the anesthesia wear off, we find we have to make a decision after all, but now our stress has been exponentially multiplied.

Why? In addition to fearing sinning against a world tells us to make the best decisions only and always, we now fear sinning against God, for if we have not discerned the right decision, then it seems we have not truly trusted in God with all our heart.

Or worse, we reject all responsibility for our decisions, and when things turn out for ill, we blame it on the Lord.

Outsourcing our decisions to the divine explodes the possible choices into cosmic proportions.

Which is sad, because when we bring our decisions to the divine, it should put our decisions into perspective.

It is so entirely possible that in a world where God is real, the decision of whether or not we replace our smartphone with the same model or upgrade to a better one (or perhaps even downgrade to a basic phone), is not that big of a decision at all.

/

How, then, are we going to remediate decisions?

I don’t have a revolution in mind, but just some simple observations that serve as tips and tricks. Apologies for those of you who wanted something more. Feel free to add to this list:

1. The decision does not always have to be between A or B, but sometimes can be C (or D or E or F or G). 

We often get so trapped between the first two choices that come to mind that we are blinded to the whole range of options out there. This is an obvious point, I suppose, but it is a helpful reminder from time to time. Although knowing there are more decisions out there than we could possibly keep together in our head could be a source of stress, I think more often than not it will help us out of a decision-making rut.

2. When the only options are A or B, it isn’t necessarily good or bad, but sometimes simply good or slightly better. 

We are probably more familiar with the darker version of this reality, the “lesser of two evils” argument. Nonetheless, when only two respectable (or disrespectable) options are presented to us, it is not that big of a deal if we make the less than optimal decision. (It’s not, for example, worth shutting down the whole federal government to have one’s way between a private health care system that probably works and a public health care system that probably works.)

3. Every decision simultaneously comes with regret and excitement. So there will be regrets. 

After making a decision, we will feel excitement when reflecting on the benefits. Likewise we will also feel regret reflecting on the costs. While there is something common-sensical about maximizing excitement and minimizing regrets, we should not aspire for “no regrets.” The temptation then becomes not only to make foolish decisions through distorted cost-benefit analyses, but to flat-out deny that the decisions we make have real costs. Doing so might just make us sick.

4. Sometimes the “big decision” is simply one decision in a series of a thousand or more. 

There are a number of “big decisions” in our life — where we go to school, who we marry, what we believe, etc. These can be particularly stressful, simply because they are bound to shape the trajectory of our lives. But, in the long run, these “big decisions” are only one decision out of many. Regardless of whether or not you picked the “right” school, the more important decisions will be what classes you take, what extracurricular activities you involve yourself in, how many times you decide to get out of bed in the morning. Regardless of whether or not you picked the “right” spouse, the more important decisions will be every time you to choose to love, listen, and work together. Regardless of what you believe, perhaps what ends up mattering in the end is how you decide to act on those beliefs.

\

Clarification: we, of course, may decide not to got to school, decide not to marry, or choose not to believe in anything. But we rarely make these decisions once and for all, for they are always subject to revision as our life unfolds.

\

Confession: The person at the beginning of this mediation, the one trying to discern God’s will over a smartphone upgrade, could very well have been me.

Well, it was me, although not involving a smartphone but some other gizmo. Something basic, something I knew would be helpful but I wasn’t sure I needed.

And, as much as I hate to admit it, I have found myself praying over many a simple consumer purchase.

The answer I get, if one gets such answers in prayer, has yet to be “buy” or “don’t buy.”

Simply, “go ahead, make the decision.”

\

Addendum: As a twenty-something relatively fresh out of college, I’m sometimes exhausted by the amount of consequential decision-making I find myself making.

The sort of work I do requires strategic planning, unprecedented guesswork, and taking most of the blame when something goes wrong. Sometimes I want to go to work and just pull a lever. Over and over and over again. And, even if it is not stimulating or exciting, at least I know I am creating something good.

But I don’t have that luxury. It isn’t the life I have decided for myself, at least for this year.

Every day, I need to remind myself of the joy there is in simply being free to decide.

If you liked this blog post:

I’m going to ask you to change gears real quick and consider doing me a favor. As many of you know, whether it is self-publishing essays like The Virtue of Open-Mindedness or even this blog project itself, I’m fascinated with the challenge of finding new ways of getting written ideas out there in the 21st century world.

Apparently, I’m not the only one. The Barna Group is trying out a new project in “short yet meaningful reads on top issues facing us in today’s complex culture” called “Frames.” Part of that project is something called “the 10th Frame”, where select authors are asked to develop 140-character Tweets into 1,000 word essays (the average length of my blog posts, although these mediations have been indulgently long).

Part of the formula for deciding which authors get to develop their posts into essays is the amount of retweets their concept gets (See where this is going?). There is another stage of the competition after that, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves…

Long story short: I’d love to try my hand at this challenge. And you can support me in that by retweeting the following:

In case the suspense is killing you, this involves reflecting on my life as an activist in a world of climate change, and my life as a youth minister in a world of gentrification. If you want to know more, cross your fingers this tweet gets the judges’ attention.

On Decisions

Horizons from the Nexus of Economy and Belief

Finances are spiritual issues. Budgets are moral documents. Are economic beliefs, then, theological statements?

In the introduction to their book How Much Is Enough?, a critique of systems of political economy geared towards blind growth, father-son team Robert and Edward Skidelsky admit that their entire vision of a better society ultimately rests on “a declaration of faith” (p.10, emphasis added).  They claim that “[t]o go from the pursuit of growth to the pursuit of happiness is to turn from one false idol to another” (p. 123, emphasis added). They praise Catholic social teaching  for moderating “against [both] state socialism and unrestrained capitalism” (p. 186), in addition to further comments on Christian Scripture, the Dharamsūtras of Brahman India, the Confucius and Tao philosophies of ancient China, and the contemporary pseudo-religion of Gaia.

They mention the theological bearings of great economists. They note that while John Maynard Keynes’ work focused on the gears and whistles of capitalism, Keynes always had “religion under the surface,” holding onto the hope that reckless capitalism would eventually pass away and usher in “the heaven of art, love, and the quest for knowledge” (p. 17). They reference Adam Smith’s rather detached view of God, (aka: “The Great Director of the Universe”), who “has merely set the machinery [of economics] in motion, leaving it to self-love to work its benefits” (p. 50).

With those quotes from How Much Is Enough? in mind, I want to make what may seem like a surprising turn to An Altar in the World, written by Episcopalian preacher Barbara Brown Taylor. Like the Skidelskys, Taylor is interested in questions of what the good life looks like, but she comes to these questions through the lens of personal spirituality rather than political economy.

Modest thrift store prices conceal the fact each of these items has an incredible manufacturing history, originating from a human network that spans across the globe, a simple reflection that has amazed theologian and economist alike.
Modest thrift store prices conceal the fact each of these items has an incredible manufacturing history, originating from a human network that spans across the globe, a simple reflection that has amazed theologian and economist alike.

Humor me this and read this quote of Taylor’s on the “spiritual practice” of paying attention to the “sacrament” of a mail-order catalog:

“First, there are the people who produced the catalog—the designers, the photographers, the models, and the copyeditors—along with the people who produced the goods inside. Some of those people live in Mexico and others in the Phillipines. In China, where cashmere goats are bred to produce sweaters for American consumers, traditional grasslands are so overgrazed that thousands of square miles turn to desert each year. If you could lay a laminated map of the world on the floor and put a pin in every place where something in that mail-order catalog came from, you might be amazed at how prickly the map became.” (p.31)

Got that? Good, because now compare that to this excerpt from Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, where, instead of pins on a map, he is dropping exclamation points over his description of the assembly of a piece of clothing:

The woollen coat, for example, which covers the day-labourer, as coarse and rough as it may appear, is the produce of the joint labour of a great multitude of workmen. The shepherd, the sorter of the wool, the wool-comber or carder, the dyer, the scribbler, the spinner, the weaver, the fuller, the dresser, with many others, must all join their different arts in order to complete even this homely production. How many merchants and carriers, besides, must have been employed in transporting the materials from some of those workmen to others who often live in a very distant part of the country! how much commerce and navigation in particular, how many ship-builders, sailors, sail-makers, rope-makers, must have been employed in order to bring together the different drugs made use of by the dyer, which often come from the remotest corners of the world! What a variety of labour too is necessary in order to produce the tools of the meanest of those workmen! (I.1.11)

Save for Taylor’s reference to nature resource overuse, both Taylor and Smith are saying the same thing, that there is an incomprehensible economic wonder caused by the division of labor.

In fact, Taylor probably did not do this intentionally, but throughout her chapters discussing various spiritual practices, she has a coherent (although not systematic) economic doctrine of her own regarding the concept of work, the factor of production sometimes called labor.

“Work,” Taylor says, “connects us to other people,” using the examples of the customer service agent and the oft-overlooked school custodian (p.114-115). The idea here is that the fruits of our labors are not often for us to enjoy; and, if I may run away with the text, the implication is that the whole purpose of economic theorizing is less about making a profit and more about understanding the fabric of human relations to each other.

But while Taylor affirms the value of work, she also moderates this claim. She laments the loss of Sabbath culture in the American South, starting in the 1960s when “gross domestic product had become the foremost indicator of the nation’s health and well-being” (p.128). With her elegant prose, she explains her logic: “[b]y interrupting our economically sanctioned social order every week, Sabbath practice suspends our subtle and not so subtle ways of dominating one another on a regular basis. Because our work is so often how we both rank and rule over one another, resting from it gives us a rest from our own pecking orders as well. When the Wal-Mart cashier and the bank president are both lying in picnic blankets at the park, it is hard to tell them apart.” (p.131).

Taylor goes even further, describing when a blizzard ripped through town and stranded her and her husband on their Georgia farm. With no road and no electricity, the author had to put down her pen and become a physical laborer for the sake of her survival and the survival of those around her (p. 143). The lessons learned from those days become a two-pronged reflection on the value of physical labor and on exceeding one’s self-interest, admitting that “the people who do these things for a living are at the bottom of the economic ladder. If American culture admitted to caste, then these laborers would be the shudras” (p.146).

There is much more to say on Taylor’s concept of labor, but I have to stop there for the sake of bringing my thoughts full circle. Suffice it to say that Taylor could not talk spirituality without stumbling upon economics. And while this seems to happen mostly in the background, Taylor does at least once bring it straight to the forefront, claiming that “[i]f Bible lovers paid as much attention to Leviticus 25 as to Leviticus 18, then we might discover that God is at least as interested in economics as in sex” (p.131).

I don’t know what to make of the sex piece, but if Taylor is claiming that God is interested in economics, there are economists who are quite interested in (some sort of) God. The Skidelskys, in the second-to-last paragraph (so, rhetorically speaking, they really do mean it) of their entire book on money and the good life, write the following personal ad, albeit in reserved academic prose:

The basic goods…are not logically dependent on any single religious doctrine, but their realization is probably impossible without the authority and inspiration that only religion can provide. Most of the liberal reformers of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were Christians; others were among those who, as Keynes said of himself, “destroyed Christianity and yet had its benefits.” Could a society entirely devoid of the religious impulse stir itself to the pursuit of the common good? We doubt it. (p.218)

It may seem like a match made in heaven, but I think Christians need to pause for a moment and realize the implications of such an opportunity. How can we frame this not so that the church is a pawn of human progress, but rather that a healthier economics is the consequence of the church living into its mission of being a foretaste of things to come, being the salt of the earth?

Continue reading “Horizons from the Nexus of Economy and Belief”

Aside