Empires, Philosophies, Biases, and Jesus

I, Claudius
Robert Graves

The Inexplicable Universe: Unsolved Mysteries
Neil deGrasse Tyson

History’s Greatest Voyages of Exploration
Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius

The History of Ancient Rome
Garrett G. Fagan

Will to Power: The Philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche
Robert C. Solomon and Kathleen Higgins (narrators)

Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People
Mahzarin Banaji & Anthony Greenwald
New York: Delacorte Press, 2013

I Knew Jesus Before He Was a Christian . . . and I Liked Him Better Then
Rubel Shelly
Abilene: Leafwood Publishers, 2011


By LeRoy Lawson

Heard a good book lately? I confessed in an earlier column that sometimes (regularly) I read with my ears, thanks to the growing library of available audiobooks. We live in remarkable times. Poor eyesight, or even blindness, does not have to keep a person from “reading.” Some people learn better through their ears than their eyes; they, too, can feast on the auditory riches served up by Audible.com, among other sources.

Here are some of my recent listens:

I first read Robert Graves’s I, Claudius—a sensationalized, not very trustworthy, recounting of the lives of emperors from Julius Caesar to Claudius—when I was a young student trying to get a feel for Imperial Rome. Flawed it may be; boring it isn’t. The next time somebody tells you the world has never been as corrupt as it is today, recommend this 1934 novel of ancient Rome. It’s a sure cure for that misperception.

03_Lawson_FMB_JNIf you aren’t a scientist, and I’m not, but are curious to know what scientists have thought and discovered and guessed at, you’ll appreciate Neil deGrasse Tyson’s The Inexplicable Universe: Unsolved Mysteries. Tyson offers simple—well, I read a review that called them simple!—explanations on such subjects as how the galaxies were formed and the unpredictable behavior of quarks and their kin.

History’s Greatest Voyages of Exploration ranks high among my favorites in recent listens. This Great Courses course from Professor Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius of the University of Tennessee offers 24 lessons replete with information that, after a lifetime of reading history, I hadn’t run across before. Let me list some of the adventurers: Pytheus the Greek; Marco Polo; Xuanzang (no, I hadn’t heard of him either); Ferdinand Magellan; James Cook; Alexander Humbolt; Meriwether Lewis and William Clark; and David Livingstone. And there are many others, including two intrepid women, Ida Pfeiffer and Mary Kingsley.

You won’t applaud everything about these explorers—some of them were greedy, cruel taskmasters—but you will gain a new appreciation of what price was paid for these courageous adventurers to discover and create the world we so carelessly inhabit.

The mythologist Joseph Campbell wrote, “The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek.” These men and women overcame many personal fears to discover their new worlds. And they changed how we think about our planet.

Other recent listens include Professor Garrett G. Fagan’s The History of Ancient Rome. I, Claudius focused on Imperial Rome; Fagan starts with the Romans’ predecessors, the ancient Etruscans, and traces these roots to their fullest flowering in the Empire, and then the slow, painful crumbling and eventual disappearance when the Holy Roman Empire became, as Voltaire quipped, neither holy nor Roman nor empire. You can’t explain the metamorphosis of the primitive first century Christian church into the Roman Catholic Church without at least some rudimentary understanding of how Rome became Rome.

Then, for something different, I tuned in to Will to Power: The Philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. You can find the fingerprints of Nietzsche all over the modern world: in the Nazi Germany of Hitler, in the anti-Semitism of Richard Wagner (though Nietzsche himself was not a thorough anti-Semite), in the existentialism of the mid-20th century, and in rebels of all kinds who don the mantle of the Super-Man motivated by the Will to Power.

These lectures uncovered a lot of my ignorance. What I thought I knew about Nietzsche turned out to be wrong.

And here are some of my recent reads:

Blindspot is a disturbing book. It attacks some of my favorite prejudices, including some I didn’t know I had. Not just me, either. The authors take us all on. They show how even though we may not be aware of them—especially when we aren’t aware of them—we automatically, oh-so-easily zip open our well-worn thought categories and drop people into them. We sort them, label them, and dispose of them.

The categories? You know them. You use them, as I do, every day. We discriminate by gender, race, age (I get a little sensitive about this one), ethnicity, height (or, as in my case, the lack of it), religion, abilities and disabilities, nationality, education, profession—and on and on.

Using a tool called the “Implicit Association Test,” Banaji and Greenwald have tested the biases of thousands of people. The results are surprising. A common reaction is disbelief like mine: “I was not aware. . . .”

As the title suggests, even good people have blind spots. The evidence is pretty overwhelming: most of the things we do we don’t think about doing. We’re on autopilot. We aren’t conscious of blinking or swallowing or even how we walk. No problem there. But these authors make us squirm when they demonstrate that our “considered” judgments are not really considered at all, but expressions of bias, stereotypical categorizing, cultural conditioning—of anything but reasoned thought.

One value of this helpful book is the inclusion of several tests for the reader. The results, I suspect, will surprise you as they did me. Another is the appendix that asks (and answers) the question, “Are Americans Racist?” I think you know.

Rubel Shelly spoke for Emmanuel Christian Seminary’s 2015 commencement service. I had not heard him for several years. The good first impression he made then has never faded. Between these two occasions he left his Nashville, Tennessee, pastorate of nearly 30 years, served as professor and then president of Rochester College in Minnesota, and subsequently returned to Nashville as a professor with Lipscomb University. We also served together for a few years on the Provision Ministries board, where he never failed to impress his fellow members with his keen intelligence, compassionate heart, and balancing sense of humor.

As a result of this long association, I expected to like his I Knew Jesus Before He Was a Christian. I wasn’t disappointed. The disappointment here, in fact, is the author’s. He is discouraged by how institutionalized Christianity has marginalized the Jesus of the Gospels. The church as a whole has done Jesus wrong: misinterpreting, contradicting, taming, and finally imprisoning him in the trappings of mere religion.

The appealing Jesus of the Scriptures, Shelly insists, hung out with the wrong crowd. His chosen crowd turned off society’s respectable people. He offered hope to those on the fringes. He called to account religious and civic leaders who ignored or trampled on the poor and powerless. This is the Jesus Shelly knew before, the Jesus he still loves and believes in.

His book quotes generous portions of the Gospels to prove that this Jesus, his Jesus, is as compelling today as when Shelly first got acquainted with him—sometimes shocking, often comforting, occasionally very demanding, always truth-telling, and wonderfully appealing.

We need to get better acquainted with this Jesus.

LeRoy Lawson is international consultant with CMF International and professor of Christian ministries at Emmanuel Christian Seminary, Johnson City, Tennessee. He also is a CHRISTIAN STANDARD contributing editor and on Standard Publishing’s Publishing Committee.

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1 Comment

  1. Kerry Hookstra
    March 31, 2016 at 12:26 pm

    Thanks for the reviews and the mention of Rubel Shelly. Had him for a graduate class at Abilene Christian University. I suspect that he would be surprised to learn that the college he spent 20 years with as professor and president moved to Minnesota when he left the campus in Michigan. Hope to see you at the NACC, Dr. Lawson…

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