Monday, May 17, 2010

When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor... and Yourself

This past fall, Woodland Hills Church in St. Paul, MN did a sermon series entitled "Compassion by Command". Greg Boyd taught most weeks, but others contributed valuable insight throughout the process. It really got me thinking about poverty alleviation, and also made some significant connections with my dissertation. I would strongly encourage you to take the time to listen/watch to these sermons online at the link provided above.

One of the resources that kept being mentioned was this book, When Helping Hurts by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert. I decided to pick it up, and after reading it, I believe it is an essential resource for any organization that works with the poor in any way, shape or form.

The basic thesis of the book is that poverty alleviation is "the ministry of reconciliation: moving people closer to God by living in right relationship with God, with self, with others, and with the rest of creation" (78) and that material poverty alleviation is "Working to reconcile the four foundational relationships (God, self, others, rest of creation) so that people can fulfill their callings of glorifying God by working and supporting themselves and their families with the fruit of that work." (78)

When poverty alleviation is defined in these terms, it is clear we are all in poverty, in need of poverty alleviation. We are all broken in our relationships. We need each other to help through this process. Recognizing our poverty is one of the keys to bringing about poverty alleviation for ourselves and for those around us. Poverty is more than a lack of resources, education, or money. It is a lack in your relationships, which undermines you and your self-confidence. This is a large part of why poverty alleviation is found in rebuilding relationships with other people and with God.

The authors say that there are three responses to any situation of involvement: relief, rehabilitation, and development. Most churches and organizations respond in the manner of relief in every situation, although only a handful of situations actually call for relief. Relief should be used in situations where there has been some kind of disaster and used to "stop the bleeding". Rehabilitation is trying to move from the post-disaster situation to a level similar to the pre-disaster situation, while development is moving people beyond their present or previous situations into a better place. Development is what is typically needed, but it is the most inconvenient one of the three. Development cannot happen by throwing money at a situation, or material goods, or even simple education. Those are more appropriate for relief than development.

Development requires building relationships with people. Development is not about telling people what to do, but helping them decide for themselves what to do and working with them as they work toward that goal. They strongly advocate for Asset-Based Community Development, where instead of going into a community and asking "What can we do to help?", you go into a community and ask "What are your gifts?" Asking this question not only informs you what the community is capable of doing, but shows them what they are capable of doing and being, empowering them to move in that direction. When the community takes initiative for themselves, that is when poverty is most likely to be alleviated. This process is often unappealing to churches and organizations because it is a slow process that often lacks any kind of immediate return, but the authors argue that working through development is where true poverty alleviation occurs.

The authors include many stories of failures and successes, addressing issues both domestically and overseas. There is an especially direct chapter about the damage that often occurs because of short term mission trips, while also giving suggestions for how to make short term missions trips successful for both those who go on the trip and those that are supposed to be helped on the trip.

As I mentioned at the beginning, I think that everyone who is at all involved in attempts at poverty alleviation needs to read this book. The book is set up in a way that is incredibly conducive to small groups going through this book together. This book (and the Compassion By Command sermon series) challenged me to reevaluate my belief about the way to approach poverty alleviation and affirmed the role that treating one another with human dignity must play in our relationships. Please, read this book. Of the books I have reviewed to this point, there has not been a book that I feel so strongly about the need for people to read it. If reading this book stops people, churches and other organizations from the destructive behavior in which they typically engage (with the best intentions) when it comes to poverty alleviation, it will help things out immensely. If it actually leads people to act in these difficult, but helpful ways, true poverty alleviation could start.

Monday, May 3, 2010


Some people write books to present ideas that they have. Some people write books to critique the ideas others have. Yet others write books to respond to critiques that others have of their ideas. Justification by N.T. Wright would be primarily the third kind of book, yet displays the first two kinds as well.

In 2007, John Piper wrote The Future of Justification in which he heavily critiqued Wright’s view on justification, by taking things Wright has said throughout his corpus of work and showing why he finds them to be incorrect. Upon the release of this book, Wright got to work on this book, as an attempt to clearly state what his views on justification are and to argue why his view is more correct than Piper’s.

It is probably good to ask the question, “What does it mean to be more correct when it comes to one’s view of justification?” There are multiple ways this question can be answered, all of which should carry some weight. Among these answers are: faithfulness to Scripture, faithfulness to tradition, coherence across both Scripture and tradition, faithfulness to a certain interpretation of Scripture, etc. Both sides of the debate would claim faithfulness to Scripture as one of the main standards of their “correct” answers. However, given that both sides are working from within certain traditions and perspective, the question may actually be, which of these perspectives is the better of the two in giving an answer that presents a cohesive, coherent picture of all of Scripture.

As one can imagine, this question cannot be answered in a blog post. Wright tries to do it in a 250-page book, with a reasonable level of success, in part, because he often points to other writings he has done for further reference, or promises to deal with them in a forthcoming book on Paul. In other words, the 250-page book doesn’t really answer this question either.

With that being said, Wright was clearly frustrated in writing this book. He felt that Piper had presented Wright’s view in a less than charitable manner with misunderstandings throughout Piper’s book. Wright wrote this book, in part, to lay out his view on justification in a single source in an attempt to make clear what his view is on justification and to prevent future critics to cherry pick from his great corpus of work to construct of straw man of Wright’s position. In the process he turns critiques back on Piper and makes the case for his position.

To make a long story short, for Wright, justification is a global concept. Justification is not just about individual humans, but instead, is about all of creation. As Wright continually notes throughout the book, justification is about God’s covenant with Israel. It is his “single plan to put the world to rights” and to do so through Israel. God’s goal from the beginning to was to bring the world to rights through Israel. Justification is not about moral righteousness, but about God’s faithfulness to that covenant. Wright spends the first half of the book establishing this idea, while explaining the first century world in which Paul was writing these ideas and exploring different motivations for different interpretations. The second half of the book becomes a case study where he goes through the main passages in the Pauline epistles and shows how a fuller understanding of the context surrounding the typical proof-texts of the opposing position actually makes the case for his interpretation of the idea of justification, rather than the other perspective. He ends by taking an extensive look at Romans, showing the arc of the entire book to be that of a global justification, rather than particular justifications for individual humans. The final 30 pages of the book moves from the theory to the practice, connecting themes that one finds in other of Wright’s writings with the concept of justification in a way that brings new life and meaning to both.

Of course, there is much greater detail than what I am giving, but I am assuming that most people reading this blog who are interested in this book will be reading it themselves and that those who are not interested are skimming this blog to see if I see anything interesting. Let me say that Wright makes a very compelling case for his view of justification and answers questions that have always lingered in my mind. However, it is clear that your commitments will determine how convincing you find his arguments to be, which leads back to the question I raised earlier about what commitments should determine our reading of Scripture, which are far too big to answer in a single post.

On a final note, if you’re looking to read N.T. Wright and you’re not a scholar, I would highly recommend that you read his book, Surprised by Hope. In that book he addresses the role of a physical, bodily resurrection in relation to Christianity, and finds it to be a core tenant of our faith that is far too often ignored and also gives us far more hope and meaning to our Christianity than we have without it. If you’re looking to get into Wright, I would start there and after that book, maybe move on to Justification, although Wright has written so prolifically, you can really move in many directions depending on your interests in theology. Although this review is the first on N.T. Wright, I can guarantee it will not be the last.

Sunday, April 25, 2010


I recently finished the sequel to the first book reviewed in the most recent instantiation of this blog. SuperFreakonomics by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner is an enjoyable read, but is a sequel in a real sense of the word.

This book feels more like a set of case studies than the first book which had more emphasis on theory and motivation. By reading the first book, one gets the direction they are going and can see more clearly what is going on in this second book. The case studies are more interesting (and controversial) than the first book for sure, but let me strongly encourage you to read Freakonomics before embarking on SuperFreakonomics.

As you can see on the cover, the subtitle presents us three of the interesting case studies they consider in this book. All of the information in the book is, at the least, thought provoking, but for the sake of brevity (and to keep from ruining the book for you), I'm going to stick to the subtitled ones. I'll touch on these in reverse order.

After the multiple terrorist attacks (and attempted attacks) around the globe, governments have become much more concerned with trying to stop terrorists before they attack. They have tried to come up with a logarithm that will accurately determine who is and is not a terrorist before they perform an act of terrorism. Among the different things considered in the logarithm is whether or not the individual has life insurance. Common sense would tell us that if you knew you were going to kill yourself, there would be little point in owning life insurance. Come to find out, this is a key indicator as to the likelihood that someone might be a terrorist. So if you're a terrorist and want to be successful, buy life insurance. Now, before you think that they've just disclosed a huge national security secret, they make it clear that there is an indicator that is by far the most reliable indicator to determine whether someone is a terrorist or not, and they do not even think of disclosing it. But, it is true that if you are a suicide bomber and you don't want to get caught, buying life insurance is one way that may make it a bit harder to catch you before you do it.

Now one may legitimately wonder, what in the world is going on with patriotic prostitutes? Sadly, the idea of a patriotic prostitute was minimally explained, just pointing to the fact that in a park in Chicago, the number of prostitutes available during the Fourth of July weekend is drastically increased (as are the prices) over a normal time. Basically, when there is a greater demand for prostitutes and a greater amount to be earned, these incentives lead to some women being a prostitute for one weekend of the year and making out really well. Once again, the drive of incentives that we saw in the first book comes up here. They say some other really interesting things about prostitution (and the correlation--not causation--between the decrease in the number of women prostitutes and the decrease of American education), but I'll let you read the book to learn those things.

The last part of the subtitle is by far the most controversial. They are not arguing that the earth is cooling and working with the assumption that the earth is warming and humans are behind it.* They are talking about possible ways (if needed) to help cool the earth temporarily in order to allow time to develop efficient alternative fuel sources and fend off the rising oceans and destroyed coastline that would come about from that happening. Needless to say, the solution offered is incredibly interesting, quite affordable (it is projected to cost significantly less than Al Gore's foundation spends each year just on trying to educate people on global warming), apparently safe for the environment, could quickly be completed, temporary, adjustable, and easily reversible. I won't ruin it for you, but it really caught me off-guard why I had never heard of this as a possibility, particularly given how bad the situation we're in is explained to be.

Much of this book focuses on rethinking conventional wisdom, or at least encouraging us to be willing to question things that we do not understand. The heavy emphasis on incentives found in the first book is weaker in the sequel, but still underlies a lot of the thinking. However, the ultimate focus is that we should be willing to question the status quo, but question in a way that digs for something deeper, not just simply to be contrarian, as some have accused these men as being.

I think both Freakonomics and SuperFreakonomics are books that would be good to read along with a book like The Sacredness of Questioning Everything by David Dark, particularly in an Introduction to Philosophy class. I'm in the process of putting final touches on a syllabus for Introduction to Philosophy that would be called "Questioning Questions" or "Doubting Doubt", but the focus would be on searching for truth, and the role that questions and doubt play in coming to truth. We would read Dark's book, some Platonic dialogues, Descartes' Meditations, something from Kierkegaard or Nietzsche, and end by looking at some controversial issue, encouraging the students to work through the issue of that semester from a questioning mindset, rather than as an attempt to prove what they already think or disprove what they already disagree with. I think a chapter or two from either Freakonomics or SuperFreakonomics would fit perfectly into a class like that.

Regardless, I recommend that you read Freakonomics, and once you've read that (or if you already have), to read SuperFreakonomics. You may not agree with everything they say. You may not change your mind on anything. But at the very least, you'll be challenged to at least reevaluate why you see the world as you do.
*Disclaimer: I personally believe that whether the earth is warming or cooling, and whether humans had anything to do with that, we were created to be stewards of God's creation, regardless whether there are or are not negative consequences for irresponsible action and whether we can or cannot make a positive difference on the problem of climate change by changing the way we live. In other words, as Christians, whether the problem of climate change is real or an illusion, we should always be living in a way that takes our original role in creation seriously.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Eat for Health

For Christmas, Jess got a set of books entitled Eat for Health by Dr. Joel Fuhrman. She started reading the books and quickly became convinced that both of us needed to read the books and that we needed to start taking some of the steps that are talked about in these books. Initially I was skeptical that these books were setting us up for a fad diet, but to humor my wife, I decided I would read the books.

Once I started reading Book One - The Mind Makeover, I became hooked. Dr. Fuhrman explains clearly the method behind his plan. It is not a diet, in that, you eat a particular way in order to lose way. Instead, it is a lifestyle change. This way of eating is based on the idea that our bodies are built to take care of many of the physical problems we have. The reason we end up needing medication or surgery is largely because we don't give our bodies the nutrients they need to take care of themselves.

Dr. Fuhrman makes a distinction between macronutrients (calories, proteins, and fats) and micronutrients (think vitamins). We give our bodies far too many macronutrients and far too few micronutrients. The lack of micronutrients is due largely to the lack of fruits and vegetables in what we eat. He argues that our focus should be on eating nutrient dense food, that is, food that has many nutrients per calorie. Fruits and vegetables are the most nutrient dense food that we can eat. Because these foods are so dense, Dr. Fuhrman allows you to eat as much of these foods as you want. Although some may be concerned with calories, 300 calories of fruits and veggies will fill your stomach, whereas 300 calories of chicken barely fills a quarter of your stomach and 300 calories of oils barely fills any part of your stomach. In other words, you can eat your fill of veggies and will consume so few calories and so many nutrients that it will not work against you.

Dr. Fuhrman would like to see people eating 90% of their daily calories from fruits and veggies. However, he has a four phase plan to help people adjust. He makes it clear that you can stop at any phase and it will help your body out from the way you are eating now. The first phase he wants you to eat a half a pound of veggies a day and a half a pound of fruits a day. This may seem like a lot, but if you spread it out over multiple meals or munch on some fruits and veggies as snacks, you hit the half pound marks really quickly. Additionally, he advocates that you eat till you liquify your food, as many fruits and veggies often do not give us the nutrients they have as we do not break them down enough. The second phase increases the fruits and veggies to a pound a day each, while the final phases focuses much more on reducing animal products, oils, and non-fruits/veggies. Again, you don't have to make it to phase four. If you do, you'll see drastic changes in many different areas of your life. However, making it to phase one or two will still do good things for you. Phase three and four only become necessary when you start dealing with things like diabetes and heart disease, for you can help your body deal with these diseases without having to become dependent on meds for the rest of your life.

The thing to keep in mind in this process is that you can still eat other things. If you want to eat the birthday cake and ice cream, you can. If you want a steak, you can. However, the idea is to focus on making sure your body is getting the micronutrients, because here in America, we have no problem at all getting our macronutrients. (I was surprised to find out the protein and calcium content of many fruits and veggies!) If you try to get the bulk of your calories from fruits and veggies, you'll go a long way toward accomplishing that goal.

The second book is basically a cookbook full of recipes that help implement the kind of lifestyle needed. We haven't tried many of the recipes, but look forward to bringing more and more into our supper rotation.

I've been trying to eat more fruits and veggies and reducing some of my animal products. I'm somewhere between phase one and two on my fruit and veggie intake, but lagging in the animal products, although I've accepted that I love my milk and cheese too much to ever get to phase three or four. Over the last month (while being somewhat inconsistent due to traveling), I've dropped 6 pounds, while doing nothing in the way of extra exercise. Both Jess and I are trying to add more physical activity to our lives. However, the focus is not on losing weight, but rather on eating healthier and being healthier people. Thanks to Dr. Fuhrman, I think we're on our way!

I highly recommend this set of books if you're looking to find a way to eat healthier in a way that is not a fad diet. I made a vegetarian chili tonight that turned out incredibly well and will be cooking with eggplant for the first time tomorrow night. It's changing the way we look at food and encouraging us to try to live healthier lives. I hope it can do the same for you!

Thursday, January 28, 2010

The Book of Basketball

For Christmas, I received The Book of Basketball by Bill Simmons, of I have been looking forward to this book for some time, as I am a big fan of Simmons' writing and podcasts.

The book is pretty much what it sounds like. It covers all aspects of basketball. It tells the history of the NBA from its origins to present day. It discusses 31 different "What Ifs?" about how a trade here or there or a draft pick or an ownership change or other things each changed the landscape of the NBA or significantly altered the career of a player. It sets up the Pyramid of Fame (replacing the Hall of Fame) in which different players are on different levels of the pyramid, with the top 12 players of all time being at the top and are referred to as "The Pantheon". The book discusses the top 10 champions of all time, as well as the team you would put together if you had a time machine and had to construct a team to play Martian invaders who are set on destroying our planet if we lose. Basically, Simmons gives his thoughts on many parts of the NBA.

The thing that makes this book different than most sports books is that Simmons blends his humor, knowledge of popular culture, and personal bias with the facts about sports. This blend makes a 700 page book a very enjoyable read. I found myself alternating between audible laughter and the noise made when you learn something new. The book is written in a way that you can read a lot at one time, or you can use it for a bathroom reader (which he encourages in one of his columns, I believe).

If you enjoy basketball and you enjoy pop-culturally informed writing, I highly recommend this book. As I mentioned, it's 700 pages, but the read goes quickly given Simmons' wit.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010


I'm going to do much more writing this year. I am also going to do more reading. I hope that these two statements would be true, even if I wasn't writing my dissertation this year. On this blog, I want to write up thoughts about what I'm reading, things that might show up in my dissertation, and things that have nothing at all to do with my dissertation.

Speaking of my dissertation, I'm defending my prospectus next Wednesday afternoon, so a week from now, I plan to be ABD (All But Dissertation)!

The first write-up of the year is Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner's Freakonomics. This book originally came out in October 2006, but was a gift this year for Christmas twice.* I thoroughly enjoyed the book, as the writers search to question conventional wisdom on a range of topics. They are great writers, writing in a fun, accessible way, while dealing with topics that are normally considered unaccessible by non-academics.

They state that conventional wisdom (according to a guy named Galbraith) "must be simple, convenient, comfortable and comforting." If you look closely at that definition, the word "true" is nowhere to be found. It was interesting to watch them address some of our ideas (like a house with a gun is more dangerous than a house with a pool) and show how conventional wisdom is not based on facts as much as it is on risk avoidance. Risk is defined as "hazard + outrage", in that when we think of risk, we're not just thinking about the hazard involved, but also the outrage that is felt if that event were to occur. So when we think about a child drowning in a pool, we feel sad, but not necessarily outraged. However, when we think about a child dying in a gun accident, the horror drastically increases the outrage we feel. So even though a child is 100 times more likely to drown in a pool (about 1 in 10,000 chance) than in a gun accident (about 1 in a million), we work much harder to increase gun safety and feel much more leery about sending children to a house with a gun than we do to institute things that would drive down the number of children who drown in a pool each year. The authors argue not that taking a stand against guns in houses is wrong, but rather, the reasons most people hold for taking such a stand are misguided.

The authors are very careful to discuss the difference between a strong correlation and causation, and tend to stick to strong correlations more often than not. However, time and time again we see that conventional wisdom, while it may feel good, is not always true.

I'm wondering how (or if) this book could fit into an Introduction to Philosophy class. I'm presently looking at using David Dark's The Sacredness of Questioning Everything in a class next spring as a way of encouraging students to realize that we must be willing to ask questions, even questions that may initially seem ridiculous, if we are going to arrive at truth (and that we should always work to arrive at truth). It seems like Freakonomics would be a book that could do a similar job.

Regardless, Freakonomics is a great book that I would recommend to most anyone! The authors published a sequel (Superfreakonomics) that came out this past fall (and which I ordered for myself on today for $12). If you want a book that will make you think and laugh at the same time, Freakonomics is for you.

*My wife and mother-in-law both independently came up with the idea of getting it for me for Christmas. However, by the time my mother-in-law gave it to me, I was almost done with the copy from my wife.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

I'm really bad at this blogging stuff...

Well, it's been over 2 1/2 months since I last wrote. In that time I've:
  • Successfully run a half-marathon
  • Gotten a dissertation topic approved
  • Presented a paper on Nicholas Wolterstorff's work in front of him
  • Finished teaching at UMHB
  • Starting lifting weights again after a shoulder problem prevented that for a couple months
  • Had a paper accepted for the Evangelical Philosophical Society conference in November
  • Received an Outstanding Graduate Student Instructor Award for Baylor University
I think that's the bulk of it. I give my last final of the year at Baylor on Monday. Then I'll be fully devoted to getting my dissertation prospectus ready for defense, hopefully this summer. I'll also be working on my syllabus for the Existentialism class I'm teaching in the fall. Between those two things, I'm sure I'll have things to write about this summer.

Right now, my "fun" reading consists of:
  • Satan and the Problem of Evil by Gregory A. Boyd
  • The Sacredness of Questioning Everything by David Dark
I think the latter of the two has potential as a textbook for an Intro to Philosophy class. I've really enjoyed the books by David Dark, and especially enjoyed his wife's music (Sarah Masen).

The former is the second book in a "trilogy", and I had read the first one, God at War, at the beginning of this year. I've been listening to Boyd's podcasts for awhile, and realized that he treats spiritual warfare with a seriousness that I have not typically encountered. For awhile, I've believed in the reality of spiritual warfare but it didn't actually fit anywhere in my intellectual or practical scheme of life. These books have definitely helped change that, particularly in the intellectual realm. I'm still figuring out how this works out in my life, but think that these books are definitely worth looking at. (The third book in the "trilogy" is actually a forth-coming work that is presently projected to be two volumes, roughly a thousand pages in each.)

As far as music to check out, I've recently become aware of the band Obadiah Parker (fronted by Mat Weddle). They're most famous for an acoustic cover of Outkast's "Hey Ya" but I've enjoyed all of their stuff I've heard. I definitely recommend them. I also recommend the new Kelly Clarkson album, but that's another story.

Ok, that's enough writing for now. Hopefully I can do better with writing and actually get into some ideas worth discussing soon.