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Thursday, July 16, 2020

Stumbling on Happiness- A Book Review

STUMBLING ON HAPPINESS     

by Daniel Gilbert

Reviewed by

  Geoffrey W. Sutton





Harvard psychology professor, Daniel Gilbert, will make you laugh as he weaves witticisms and humorous stories into an entertaining account of scientific research as we join him in Stumbling on Happiness. Essentially, Gilbert argues in chapter one, that we spend much of our time planning and executing unsuccessful strategies to attain an elusive state of happiness. In six sections, we learn why such a quest often proves beyond our grasp.

In part one, Gilbert provides a brief overview of the philosophical foundations of the problem of subjective analysis of happiness. He gradually leads us to an operational definition by illustrating how common human experiences can deliver shared feelings of happiness. However, he illustrates how the elusive and subjective aspect of happiness can produce self-deception by demonstrating how the human brain misperceives visual phenomena and similarly misperceives the imagined happiness value of a future event.

In part two, Gilbert builds on the results of cognitive science to show how we mistakenly recall previously recorded feelings and struggle to make affective  comparisons between experiences. He concludes the section with an appropriately humble appreciation of the problems in measuring happiness. Nevertheless, he urges us to forge ahead with the assessments we have because of the important role feelings play in our lives. Caveats aside, Gilbert has set the foundation for the next three parts that address the attitudes of realism, presentism, and rationalization to an understanding of happiness.


REALISM is the focus for part three. Gilbert argues from research data that imagination provides the illusion of foresight and a sense of.realism that is in fact unreal because we routinely fail to realize how many event-related details are filled in by our brains. He summarizes memory research to demonstrate how the brain forms imprecise memories of past events in such a subtle manner that people do not realize the inaccuracies. Thus, he expertly explains how our perceptual processes not only miss important details but also fill in nonexistent information based on previous experience and environmental cues. He also reviews the important dynamics of memory reconstruction especially as related to the accuracy of memories. Although many of these studies will be familiar to undergraduate
psychology students, Gilbert shows how these findings are relevant to an accurate
appraisal of experiences that we may or may not construe as a basis for happy feelings.


PRESENTISM. In part four, readers learn about the problems people have in accurately predicting their future feelings, which are largely based on the present (hence the name Presentism for this section). Beginning with illustrations of failed predictions and humorous past images of what the future (now past) would be like, Gilbert guides readers into an appreciation for the problems of using present experience to extrapolate to the future.

In addition, he includes research that illustrates the relatively poor job people do when asked to assess how they will feel following various events. By this time most readers should be fairly well convinced that their predictions about a given pursuit of happiness may not materialize. Even if it did, they cannot be sure that they will indeed feel happy! Finally, he builds a subtle argument for the similarity of space and time dimensions of experience in order to use research about misperceptions of distant events in spatial dimensions to illustrate the problem of appraising affective outcomes of events on near and distant time horizons.





RATIONALIZATION. Paradise Glossed, the chapter that begins part five (Rationalization), opens with a familiar Shakespearean line, "For there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so (Hamlet)." Here we learn of the human penchant for recasting personal events and facts so they present a favorable impression. In Gilbert's words, we cook the facts (read confirmation bias). An interesting aside for therapists is that people end up handling trauma and disaster much better than they predict they would. So what do people commonly regret? Interested readers will find the answer on page 197
.

In the last section, Gilbert illustrates how personal theories and problematic information add to the difficulty of predicting which event sequence will lead to any particular future, let alone one that affords us happiness. He concludes with a chapter suggesting that learning from the experiences of others may actually improve our odds of a happier future more than relying on our "faithless" memories or memory dependent imaginations.

Scholarly readers will appreciate the extensive chapter-by-chapter notes that include studies from the highest quality psychology journals. The notes are followed by an adequate index. On the book's website, there is a basic 12-week outline for those who wish to teach a unit on the subject (http://www.randomhouse.com/kvap/gubert/index .html)..Pragmatic readers will benefit from a current overview of a topic relevant to an understanding of human behavior—at least for those of us who believe that a good deal of human behavior is motivated by the pursuit of happiness. 

Worth Quoting


“Impact is rewarding. Mattering makes us happy.”
― Daniel Gilbert, Stumbling on Happiness

“Surprise tells us that we were expecting something other than what we got, even when we didn’t know we were expecting anything at all.”
― Daniel Gilbert, Stumbling on Happiness

“Memory uses the filling-in trick, but imagination is the filling-in trick,”
didn’t know we were expecting anything at all.”
― Daniel Gilbert, Stumbling on Happiness


“Imagination cannot easily transcend the boundaries of the present, and one reason for this is that it must borrow machinery that is owned by perception. The fact that these two processes must run on the same platform means that we are sometimes confused about which one is running. We assume that what we feel as we imagine the future is what we’ll feel when we get there, but in fact, what we feel as we imagine the future is often a response to what’s happening in the present.”
― Daniel Gilbert, Stumbling on Happiness

“Among life’s cruellest truths is this one: wonderful things are especially wonderful the first time they happen, but their wonderfulness wanes with repetition.”
― Daniel Gilbert, Stumbling on Happiness


“the feeling of control—whether real or illusory—is one of the wellsprings of mental health.”
― Daniel Gilbert, Stumbling on Happiness

“When we imagine future circumstances, we fill in details that won’t really come to pass and leave out details that will. When we imagine future feelings, we find it impossible to ignore what we are feeling now and impossible to recognize how we will think about the things that happen later.”

― Daniel Gilbert, Stumbling on Happiness






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Here is a YouTube talk on happiness by Dan Gilbert

















Tuesday, July 14, 2020

WHITE FRAGILITY - a review

WHITE FRAGILITY: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism

    By Robin DiAngelo

   Reviewed by

      Geoffrey W. Sutton

 





White Fragility is a best seller with a surge in interest during this 2020 springtime of protests against racism. The concept, white fragility, is now a part of everyday discourse—at least among those who endorse the concept. Even if you disagree with most or all of DiAngelo’s ideas, I think it worth reading or listening to if you live in, or are part of, the world where white people are, or were, oppressive in their actions toward black people.

I listened to the AUDIBLE version on a trial.

 The path to white fragility in America begins a few centuries ago. DiAngelo does not dwell on the past but draws back the curtain on the historic wasteland so we have a context.

 

“Claiming that the past was socially better than the present is also a hallmark of white supremacy. Consider any period in the past from the perspective of people of color: 246 years of brutal enslavement; the rape of black women for the pleasure of white men and to produce more enslaved workers; the selling off of black children; the attempted genocide of Indigenous people, Indian removal acts, and reservations; indentured servitude, lynching, and mob violence; sharecropping; Chinese exclusion laws; Japanese American internment; Jim Crow laws of mandatory segregation; black codes; bans on black jury service; bans on voting; imprisoning people for unpaid work; medical sterilization and experimentation; employment discrimination; educational discrimination; inferior schools; biased laws and policing practices; redlining and subprime mortgages; mass incarceration; racist media representations; cultural erasures, attacks, and mockery; and untold and perverted historical accounts, and you can see how a romanticized past is strictly a white construct. But it is a powerful construct because it calls out to a deeply internalized sense of superiority and entitlement and the sense that any advancement for people of color is an encroachment on this entitlement.”

 

Naturally, DiAngelo focuses on racism in America. She’s consulted with various companies and organizations and tells tales about how white people demonstrate their fragility—crying, denying, expressing anger, and so forth. Psychologists understand tears can be a way of escaping responsibility. DiAngelo knows that too.

 

“Tears that are driven by white guilt are self-indulgent. When we are mired in guilt, we are narcissistic and ineffective; guilt functions as an excuse for inaction. Further, because we so seldom have authentic and sustained cross-racial relationships, our tears do not feel like solidarity to people of color we have not previously supported. Instead, our tears function as impotent reflexes that don’t lead to constructive action. We need to reflect on when we cry and when we don’t, and why. In other words, what does it take to move us? Since many of us have not learned how racism works and our role in it, our tears may come from shock and distress about what we didn’t know or recognize. For people of color, our tears demonstrate our racial insulation and privilege.”

 

Can immigrants like me escape? No. She tells the story of a European who claimed to have grown up in a nonracist society. She’s angry when DiAngelo confronts her. I think DiAngelo is right on two counts. First, European nations like my own participated in the American slave trade and racist empire building. Second, after being in the US a while, it is easy to slip into the way society operates. Racism is systemic.

I consider myself to be socially progressive. But that concept has little meaning unless the features are detailed. What I mean to say is I favor equality of opportunity for all and I believe we have a responsibility to promote this type of equality, which includes being anti-racist. The trap, as I understand DiAngelo, is thinking we progressives are superior to other whites because we smugly and inaccurately believe we understand the black experience and promote ourselves rather than continuing the struggle against racism. Here’s what DiAngelo says about progressives: 

“White progressives can be the most difficult for people of color because, to the degree that we think we have arrived, we will put our energy into making sure that others see us as having arrived. None of our energy will go into what we need to be doing for the rest of our lives: engaging in ongoing self-awareness, continuing education, relationship building, and actual antiracist practice. White progressives do indeed uphold and perpetrate racism, but our defensiveness and certitude make it virtually impossible to explain to us how we do so.”

 Sometimes DiAngelo comes across as harsh as if she needs to hit some whites over the head. At other times she reveals a humility such as the time she made a racist comment about a black colleague’s braided hair and needed to apologize.

 DiAngelo is at her best when she tells stories to illustrate important points like receiving feedback from people of color.

 

“In my workshops, I often ask people of color, “How often have you given white people feedback on our unaware yet inevitable racism? How often has that gone well for you?” Eye-rolling, head-shaking, and outright laughter follow, along with the consensus of rarely, if ever. I then ask, “What would it be like if you could simply give us feedback, have us graciously receive it, reflect, and work to change that behavior?” Recently a man of color sighed and said, “It would be revolutionary.” I ask my fellow whites to consider the profundity of that response. It would be revolutionary if we could receive, reflect, and work to change the behavior. On the one hand, the man’s response points to how difficult and fragile we are. But on the other hand, it indicates how simple it can be to take responsibility for our racism. However, we aren’t likely to get there if we are operating from the dominant worldview that only intentionally mean people can participate in racism.”

 White Fragility can feel depressing because she gives us white people the sense that we cannot escape our dilemma. The system built by white founders looms large and insidious. She does offer some examples of how to develop an antiracist stance through education, listening, and accepting feedback. 

**********

DiAngelo approaches her project like an apostle writing a gospel that cannot be challenged unless you want to be identified as a heretic and burned for eternity. However, she has an important point. We white people are people of privilege in the United States. That’s been clear for some time, but DiAngelo does offer additional examples of how that privilege has become covert in the wake of various laws and policies designed to address overt discrimination in employment, housing, and the like. Racism continues to exist and it can be difficult to recognize. Hence the need for books like White Fragility. 

See also the Color of Compromise

 

What DiAngelo misses is a critical perspective on her all-encompassing concept of white fragility. In her black-white view of American culture she misses important nuances that can evoke a rejection of the very goal she wishes to accomplish. She’s on message when she talks about white-black racist language. But she sometimes switches the conversation to write about people of color. On the one hand, some of the attitudes and actions of white Americans toward people of color are similar, but on the other hand, white oppression toward the descendants of American slaves is different than the oppression of Native Americans, people of color from south of the border, and people from other ethnic groups. And we should not ignore the complexity of racism and sexism as seen in the tension between white women and black women in pursuit of the right to vote (See PBS).

 Another criticism is the fuzziness of the white fragility diagnosis. It’s like a disease every white person has. This is not unlike new clinicians who attend a workshop on ADHD and go away discovering everyone has ADHD and needs the latest medication touted by the omnipresent pharma-giants. To be sure, the concept of white fragility is useful, but it is not like a disease that one has or does not have.

 White fragility is more like a tangle of thorny vines obstructing the path whites forced people of color to tread as they attempt to find the way toward the promise of America that all have unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

In my view, we white Americans would be better off identifying and cutting the overgrowth of these racist vines and creating one broad path to equality. Each thorny vine is a behavior pattern that when identified can be viewed on a sliding scale to assess where we are in making progress toward anti-racist thoughts, feelings, verbal statements, and nonverbal behavior. We can evaluate the possibility that we are in denial or avoiding an uncomfortable truth. We can learn how to apologize, seek forgiveness, attempt reconciliation, and take action to remove a thorny vine or create an inclusive pathway.

 Finally, my experience as a psychotherapist and a consumer of psychological science argues against the value of books alone to change behavior. If self-help books were so powerful, many of us would be fit, healthy, wealthy, and wise. Nevertheless, White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo is a good read with some useful lessons. It is also an important reminder that those of us in the majority have a responsibility to weed out the thorns that choke the flourishing of so many.

White Fragility Audio Book

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Sunday, July 5, 2020

Influence- The Psychology of Persuasion Review

Influence- The Psychology of Persuasion 

by Robert B. Cialdini

Reviewed by

Geoffrey W. Sutton

Cialdini is a psychologist who has studied what it takes to persuade people to do act. When I consulted with parents and teachers about child behavior, I asked about commercials they remembered, which was often a fun exercise. Then I asked about influence— most admit remembering ads when in a store or buying something on impulse. My point is, businesses know they that a 30 or 60-second commercial can influence human behavior. 

If you are trying to sell a product or service, protest for change, or win converts to your cause, Cialdini’s principles backed by fascinating research might be helpful.


The numbers refer to the chapters in the book, Influence.


1. The Contrast Principle.

When we have two experiences—one after another—the first one influences the second. Meet a mean person first and the next person will seem kinder even if they are neutral. Meet a kind and welcoming person first and the next person will seem cool and unfriendly if they are just a bit reserved. 

The first person we meet influences our perception of the second person.




2. Reciprocation is the “give and take” principle

Most people have a built-in feeling of obligation. If you get a favor, you are expected to repay the favor. If someone buys you a drink, you are wired to repay the drink. If a salesperson offers a book or a meal, they are trying to get you to buy a product. Churches evangelize by inviting people to free meals and concerts. Politicians offer to make your life better if you vote for them.


3 Commitment and Consistency

People like to think they are consistent even when they are not. And people like others to be consistent too. Getting a commitment from people builds loyalty and helps people act consistently with their commitment. Commitment is crucial to long-term relationships like marriage. Nations expect others to honor their commitment to treaties. Companies offer free content in exchange for an email. Amazon offers a free “wishlist,” which can help build customer loyalty. Churches ask for your name and address on a visitor card—they hope you will come back. Nonprofit organizations assume you are committed when you send a gift and expect you to be consistent and give more so they send mail and make calls. And the better churches will show consistent commitment by sending pastoral staff to visit you or call you. If you voted for someone, you are apt to remain loyal to re-elect that person even if they do not fulfill their promises because you want to be consistent in terms of your original act of voting. Politicians know that- “they activate the base” and hope voters will give them more time to do what they promise to do.


4 Social Proof


Social proof has been called herd mentality. Salespeople know people want to know what others are doing or buying. Bestseller lists work this way. My best selling books are Creating Surveys and Applied Statistics—hard to believe right?

Cialdini reminds us of the effectiveness of canned laughter, which helps audiences laugh and think something is funny.


5 Liking

We generally like to do things with other people we like. So, favorite sports figures, singers, and movie stars help sell just about anything. Celebrities sell! Here’s what affects liking:


1. Physical attractiveness- people assume good looks are linked to humor, trust, and honesty

2. Similarity- we like people who share similar interests, opinions, hobbies, backgrounds and so forth.

3. Compliments- praise is rewarding- no surprise-we like people who offer praise

4. Contact and cooperation- we feel connected to people when working toward a common goal

5. Conditioning and association- associating an attractive model with a product creates a favorable impression


6 Authority

Most people are socialized into respecting people who are in authority like parents and teachers, which carries over into adulthood. People in authority can influence other people's behavior to vote, buy, change, and improve. This is why American's say presidents have a 'bully pulpit." American presidents have a power position to influence millions of people in the US and even other parts of the world.

7 Scarcity

Creating an impression of scarcity motivates people to act. In 2020, people rushed out to stock up on toilet rolls and hand sanitizer our of fear there would not be enough. Salespeople advertise “while supplies last” or “available to the first 100 customers.” Some Christian churches told people there were only a few days left (we are living in the last days) to get right with God before it would be too late.

******* 

As I mentioned above, Cialdini’s book on Influence and the Psychology of Persuasion is applicable to a wide range of activities when people are trying to influence others.

If you tend to be an easy target for influence, Cialdini helps you recognize what is happening. Identifying the triggers causing our automatic sequences can help us resist unhealthy or unwise choices.

If you are wanting to persuade people to act in a prosocial way, understanding what triggers behavior might help you create a better society. At least, I hope you learn a bit more about human behavior. 

My chart of Cialdini's points:



Of course, I would be delighted if you followed me and bought my books. But this review is free without obligation. 


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Video of Robert Cialdini talking about the Power of Persuasion





Friday, July 3, 2020

The Color of Compromise


The Color of Compromise
The Truth about the
American Church’s
Complicity in Racism


Reviewed by

Geoffrey W. Sutton



“On July 4, 2016, as my social media feeds filled with images of American flags and friends’ backyard barbecues celebrating America’s independence, I took to Twitter and posted a picture [sic] seven African Americans picking cotton in a field with the following caption: “My family on July 4th 1776.” (From the forward by Lecrae, p. 9)

Few would disagree that American slavery was immoral. As I examine The Color of Compromise in July 2020, I am keenly aware that my lessons in American history were whitewashed. And worse, I was never exposed to the degree to which the American Christian church failed to address slavery and its legacy of racism.

Tisby tells the story of American anti-black racism in 11 chapters arranged in chronological order. However, The Color of Compromise is not just the story of racism; it is the story of what Christian leaders said and did that supported slavery and the post-slavery stereotypes, prejudices, and acts of discrimination that persist in overt and covert ways to this day. As Tisby says racism is adaptive.

It is surely axiomatic by now that humans prefer to hang out with people like themselves. As an immigrant family, we interacted with other immigrant families as if we had a common bond. Strangely, I realized that a substantial proportion of the people in my book study group were born outside the US. We humans tend to like, help, and prefer those within our groups. But that natural tendency is far different from creating an economic system based on enslaving people with black skins. As Tisby writes in chapter 2, in the early years of colonial America “the colonists had not yet cemented skin color as an essential feature of life in their communities. Race was still being made (p. 26).”

In chapter 3, we are reminded that liberty was white and not black after British North Americans fought against their countrymen for liberty and justice for all. Africans fought on both sides but, as we know, the thirteen United States would not deal with the matter of slavery. By the time of the Civil War, Americans had built structures and economies based on slave labor for over 300 years1. Following the War for Independence, Christian revival meetings led by Methodists and Baptists won converts to these enthusiastic and less formal worship styles. Tisby adds the story of two famous slave-holding clergy to illustrate the support for slavery in the 1700s—George Whitfield and Jonathan Edwards.

We learn more about the ugliness of chattel slavery in chapter 4. Thus, American slaves were not just men or women working to gain their freedom like a servant. Tisby quotes African American minister James W. C. Pennington:

“The being of slavery, its soul and its body, lives and moves in the chattel principle, the property principle, the bill of sale principle: the cart whip, starvation, and nakedness are its inevitable consequences.” (p. 60)


The Civil War (chapter 5) not only spilled the nation’s blood, but it split the Methodists and Baptists too. In this context, we learn how the church found a biblical basis to defend slavery.

In chapter 6, Tisby traces the rise of white supremacy and the increasing oppression of black people through intimidation and restrictions on important dimensions of life like voting. As the new century dawned, so did the promise of Pentecostalism (chapter 7). Unfortunately, the Pentecostals became segregated like the rest of society. The two world wars do not get much time in Tisby’s story. I suggest they should as President Truman ended segregation in the military in 1948.

Unfortunately, the church did too little during the 1950s and 60s (chapter 8). This is the era of Emmett Till and Rosa Parks, the rise of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and that North Carolina moderate, Rev. Billy Graham. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was a temporary high-water mark.

In chapter 9, Tisby reminds us of the rise of the Religious Right and the Moral Majority. For those who are not old enough or who forgot, Southern Baptist pastors supported abortion in some cases before the Row v. Wade decision on abortion. Southern Baptist leader, W. A. Criswell’s view was:

“I have always felt that it was only after a child was born and had life separate from its mother . . . that it became an individual person.” He further explained, “It has always, therefore, seemed to me that what is best for the mother and for the future should be allowed.” (p. 181)

However, that view of abortion was about to change. Desegregation moved forward. Segregationist Bob Jones University (BJU) admitted black students, but mixed dating was prohibited. That race-based dating policy led to a loss of tax-exempt status in 1976. The Moral Majority rose to power on a platform of restoring Bible reading and Christian prayer to public schools and the wedge issue of abortion. The movement strengthened as Falwell and his organization blessed Ronald Reagan. Reagan spoke at BJU in 1980 and soon thereafter, their tax-exempt status was restored. The marriage of evangelical Christianity to the Republican party and an antiabortion rallying cry remains strong.

Chapter 10 takes us through the end of the 1900s and into the 2000s. Promise Keepers promotes racial reconciliation and offers some hope. Some Christian churches begin to diversify and in fact want to learn how to improve diversity. But the religious-political rift is exposed as black people are killed (Trayvon Martin, 2012). “Black Lives Matter” becomes a rallying cry only to be slammed by Christians who recoil at organizational links to LGBTQ rights. Tisby explains there’s a difference between an organization and a movement, but I doubt this will undo the emotionally tagged mental connection between Black Lives Matter and traditional enemies of Christian America. The chapter closes with a picture of a divided church and the 2016 presidential election. Tisby reports the statistics-- 84% of Blacks voted for Clinton and especially noteworthy, 94% of black women. In contrast, 81% of white evangelicals voted for the Republican ticket.

In chapter 11, Tisby evaluates American progress. Although the external "whites only" signs are down, Blacks and Whites are segregated in society, politics, and the church. He reminds us of differentials in unemployment and incarceration. On page 195, Tisby appears to respond to questions of “What can I do?” We can increase our awareness through books and videos and connect with Blacks and other minorities, he tells us. And we can use our other gifts or talents like writing and speaking to address issues of racial and social justice. There’s more here, which makes the chapter a useful guide to readers who have now developed their awareness of racism in US society.

Tisby concludes with a short essay on the importance of being strong and courageous.

**********
I recommend The Color of Compromise to all Americans and those who want to understand racism in America. 

The years of chattel slavery and the subsequent century of oppression are unique among the world’s wealthy modern nations. The legacy of slavery has resulted in decades of white control of the federal and many state governments, wealthy multinational companies, political parties, and large church bodies. Tisby’s book will further enlighten sensitive white Christians and has the potential to energize some to act according to their gifts and resources. I do not think The Color of Compromise will reach those who do not identify with the blatant racism of the past or who are focused on the fetus and concomitant perceptions that they are fighting a spiritual battle against socialists and Marxists intent on destroying Christian America. I hope I am wrong.

The Color of Compromise is a Book and a Video Series



Watch Jemar Tisby's Trailer on YouTube



Note
1. Although Tisby gives the short story of slavery, the first slaves entered Florida in 1539 where they built St Augustine, America’s oldest city.

Worth Quoting from Tisby

“The failure of many Christians in the South and across the nation to decisively oppose the racism in their families, communities, and even in their own churches provided fertile soil for the seeds of hatred to grow. The refusal to act in the midst of injustice is itself an act of injustice. Indifference to oppression perpetuates oppression.”

“History demonstrates that racism never goes away; it just adapts.”

“Being complicit only requires a muted response in the face of injustice or uncritical support of the status quo.”

“there would be no black church without racism in the white church.”

“Another definition explains racism as prejudice plus power. It is not only personal bigotry toward someone of a different race that constitutes racism; rather, racism includes the imposition of bigoted ideas on groups of people.”

“Through the centuries, black people have become the most religious demographic in the United States. For instance, 83 percent of black people say they “believe in God with absolute certainty” compared to 59 percent of Hispanics and 61 percent of whites. Additionally, 75 percent of blacks say “religion is very important” to them compared to 59 percent of Hispanics and 49 percent of whites.”

“History and Scripture teaches us that there can be no reconciliation without repentance. There can be no repentance without confession. And there can be no confession without truth.”


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Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Biblical Literalism as Heresy


Biblical Literalism: A Gentile Heresy
 A Journey into a New Christianity 
Through
 the Doorway of Matthew's Gospel


Reviewed by

Geoffrey W. Sutton

John Shelby Spong retired as Episcopal Bishop of Newark NJ in 2000. He is a strong voice for Progressive Christians.

In Biblical Literalism, Spong offers an easy to read commentary on Matthew's Gospel that reveals the Jewish roots of the stories, which are presented in the context of the Jewish calendar.

Spong opines that Christians who read the bible in a literal or near literal fashion and ignore Jewish culture cannot understand the gospel, which was written by a Jewish man for a Jewish audience decades after Jesus' ministry.

Spong reminds (or informs) readers that the story of Jesus in the New Testament begin with the early letters of Paul. Years later, we get Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John. Paul's story of Jesus is limited and what he leaves out is significant. Mark's story comes much later and leaves out much added later by the other authors. But Matthew stands out to Spong as it appears to follow an order matching the reading of scripture in the synagogue.  People like Moses and Elijah figure prominently in Jewish life, in Matthew's gospel, and in Spong's understanding of Jesus. For example, Jesus' Red Sea experience occurs during his baptism and his shining moment, like that of Moses's meeting with God, occurs at the transfiguration.

If you read Biblical Literalism, I suggest creating a list of the Jewish holy days to track Spong's analysis of the gospel.

At times, Spong seems harsh in his reminder of the problem with fundamentalist interpretations of the Bible, including this gospel. Perhaps that is understandable in light of the attacks he has experienced from those who continue to read these texts in a literal way.

It is no secret that Christians are leaving the church. And that many youth consider believers "unChristian." This book may be a way for ex-Christians to find their way back to a meaningful understanding of faith. Spong's Biblical Literalism may also appeal to those whose intelligence rebels against the simplistic biblical quips reinforcing someone's view of what the Bible says.

I would hesitate to recommend Biblical Literalism to fundamentalist and conservative evangelical friends because I hypothesize it would evoke anger and defensive maneuvers, but then again, the gospel has always been divisive.

Worth Quoting

“Unless biblical literalism is challenged overtly in the Christian church itself, it will, in my opinion, kill the Christian faith. It is not just a benign nuisance that afflicts Christianity at its edges; it is a mentality that renders the Christian faith unbelievable to an increasing number of the citizens of our world.
-John Shelby Spong


“The Christian story did not drop from heaven fully written. It grew and developed year by year over a period of forty-two to seventy years. That is not what most Christians have been taught to think, but it is factual. Christianity has always been an evolving story. It was never, even in the New Testament, a finished story.”
-John Shelby Spong


“When any human group decides that they can define God, the outcome is always predictable. The “true faith,” once defined, must then be defended against all critics, and it must also then be forced upon all people—“for their own good, lest their souls be in jeopardy.”
-John Shelby Spong


“I have seen how in our history, people of color have been enslaved by “Bible-quoting” Christians. When slavery was finally threatened with being relegated to the dustbins of history in America, it was that section of this country known as “the Bible Belt” that rose to defend the enslavement of black people in the bloodiest war of American history. When slavery finally died as a legal option on the battlefields of Gettysburg, Antietam and Appomattox, the Christians of the Bible Belt, once again quoting their scriptures for justification, instituted laws of segregation with the full support of the federal government. When those segregation laws finally began to fall in the 1950s and 1960s, I watched the Bible being quoted to justify the use of lead pipes, police dogs, fire hoses and even the bombing of black churches in which little girls in their Easter finery were killed—all in an attempt to preserve “white supremacy.”
-John Shelby Spong



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