On Getting Low

Dear friend wrote a book. Well-written, superbly researched. Short, to the point, dense with insight yet highly readable. Get Low by Jack Wisdom is impressive…

…and disappointing.

Here is what I mean. The book presents a wonderfully refreshing take on Christian thinking and theology. Jack knows his stuff, too. He’s as wonky as they come but has the ability to explain complex ideas and analysis to the layman in an entertaining way.

More than that, he gets the message of the Christian gospel right, which is rare, I’ve found. Most believers I know pay a little bit of attention in church, kinda sorta read the Bible (the good parts), and gleefully and wantonly mix religion, pop-psychology, and politics into an unappetizing stew of Christo-gumbo that, if taken in large doses, will double you over with exegetical cramps.

Jack’s tome presents a welcome relief from such pseudofaith-induced intellectual trauma. He calmly and clearly lays out the Christian gospel as a message of revolutionary, even subversive, love. Christian faith, properly understood, cannot be the caricature represented by Joel Osteen-like high intensity toothy grins plastered on billboards, nor the namby-pamby flightiness I’ve heard some atheists describe. The Christian life is a gritty, down-in-the-dirt struggle between Good and Evil. Jack gets that and insists upon our collective acknowledgement of such.

Get Low is a meditation on the implications of real Christian faith and its demand for humility. Jack correctly asserts pride lies at the root of all sins, and he proceeds to identify the various disguises in which pride manifests itself in our lives. In this respect, reading Jack’s dissertation here is like having a master player in the card game Bullshit! calling one’s every arrogant bluff.

But here is the problem. At its heart, humility as formulated in Get Low is not about truth and does not allow for sober judgment. Assuming the Christian point of view for the moment, Jack rightly calls for believers to humble themselves before God, to submit to His will, His goodness, and His love. I get that. Such submission comes at a price, however.

A Christian can humbly doubt, can really struggle with whether God is there or whether He is good. There can be times of pain and suffering and despair. Humble spiritual dehydration is allowed. But no one can ever humbly conclude that the Christian God is made up. Not only is that not a humble conclusion to draw, it is necessarily a prideful one. These are the only two options Jack’s formulation allows: humility or pride.

Can we not admit of the possibility that God and all of His trappings — the doctrines, the claims of miracles, the personal sense that He has spoken to us and loves us — are the result of a collective and pervasive delusion? Is it not even in the realm of what could be that one looks at this world anew and honestly, soberly, and as objectively as imaginable concludes that God is not there?

In Get Low, the answer is no. There is no third way. I cannot refuse to submit to God and also be humble. And if I cannot be humble I must be prideful. There is no chance that I could simply be…right.

Throughout the book Jack asserts that several tasks are impossible. For example, the atheist (or Muslim or Jain or agnostic or other non-Christian):

  • Cannot avoid selfish ambition or consider others more important than oneself (Loc. 1277);
  • Cannot put his wife’s interests ahead of his own (Loc. 1644); and
  • Cannot overcome enmity with the power of sacrificial love (Loc. 2978).

Further, he unfortunately erects a straw man to represent atheists: the “proud doubters, professional skeptics, and celebrity atheists who write best-selling books to proselytize wavering theists and agnostics.” (Loc. 1151.) Drawing on a quote from Nica Lalli (someone with whom I am unfamiliar), Jack slams Lalli for suggesting that she is not 100% certain that there is no god. More specifically, he excoriates her for suggesting that the sliver of doubt she has about there being no god helps her to maintain humility and avoid arrogance. My dear friend unbecomingly asserts that Lalli is “commending herself for having just enough uncertainty (‘a tiny wedge of doubt’) to keep from being arrogant and insufferable.” (Loc. 1161.)

He goes one step farther down the same path. Buried in an endnote, Jack refers to Peter Hitchens, brother of the late Christopher Hitchens (a well-known atheist), who apparently “contends that atheists are not dispassionate empiricists who are simply evaluating the evidence with rational, unsentimental objectivity.” (Loc. 1226.)

With that brief treatment, my friend leaves atheism behind, never fully asserting that all such people are arrogant and misguided SOBs, but certainly creating the impression that they are. This is wholly unfair. 

It would be like noting Jack’s statement in the introduction…

I am equally convinced the way to redeem every aspect of life is the way of humility. In this book, I am trying to make that case.

    I am not an expert on the topic. In fact, the folks who know me best will testify that I am uniquely unqualified to write about humility. In spite of that— or maybe because of that— I have written this collection of essays for proud people who are called to imitate a humble King. (Loc. 194-198).

…and accusing him of false modesty. After all, who would write on the topic of humility and say somewhere in the introduction something like the following?

I am an expert on this topic. In fact, the folks who know me best will testify that I am uniquely qualified to write about humility.

It would be unfair of me to suggest that Jack is being disingenuous when he asserts his lack of qualifications simply because he cannot say anything else. I know Jack. I can testify to two things: He is prideful, and he is being mostly honest and straightforward when he tells you he is not an expert on the topic. He is an intellectual expert on the matter, but living it out is where the challenge lies for him, as it does for anyone who attempts the humble life.

I believe I should treat Jack fairly and that in the preceding paragraph I have. My beef with him is how he does not treat “celebrity atheists” — and by extension all atheists — with the same grace and fairness. Indeed, I would not be out of bounds to suggest he rather arrogantly dismisses them all.

This beef reaches beyond the mere personal insult and goes to the larger point of the book, which is why I’m spending time here. I suggest that there is, in fact, a third option for a person to choose. We need not humble ourselves before the Christian God nor arrogantly dismiss Him. We need not choose between exercising humility as a matter of course or bearing ourselves with arrogance. We can, I contend, simply Get Right.

By Get Right, I mean this. We can exercise sober judgment. We can fairly evaluate the faith, the truth claims, and the scripture of Christianity (or Islam et al.), and we can, without pride or submission, decide for ourselves whether they are correct. Indeed, the possibility that they are wrong in some, most, or all respects is distinctly admitted in my view of things. We can, as Lalli apparently has, evaluate the evidence for god and reject it with near (but not total) certainty, and this rejection need not be arrogant in any way. It can simply be the result of a fair analysis of the proposition.

To Get Right one must always be willing to change one’s mind. Always! This is enormously hard to do. We are human, after all. But that does not mean we have to pretend that we are more lowly and incapable than we are.

There is much more I could say on the topic of Christian humility, and about Get Low. For now, know this. For any Christian wanting to better understand his faith, Get Low is a master stroke. But it unfortunately fails in one important respect: Jack is not fair in his treatment of those who, like me, have evaluated the faith in as fair a way as subjectively possible and found it wanting. I reject the implicit stain on my character, as others who may share my perspective should as well.

Jack Wisdom is as fine a person as you will find. I write this with love and respect for who he is and for his courage and skill in writing a book that I believe, on the whole, the Christian community needs.

 

Reference:

Wisdom, Jack (2013-03-11). Get Low: Reflections on Pride and Humility. Whitecaps Media. Kindle Edition.

(Note: The references are to the Kindle edition location numbers.)

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2 thoughts on “On Getting Low

  1. You’ve made me both want to and not want to read this book. Want, because good writing is hard to come by. Not Want, because I weary of writing by Christians that have no category for atheism. It’s like watching another Disney movie – the same unrealistic, predictive end. How can a Christian follow the life of Jesus and not see the atheism in his dying?

    That said, glad to hear there’s pots a stirrin’ with Jack’s book.

    1. I say read it. Jack wanders off the narrative track and into wonkyland a little clumsily at times, but on the whole it’s a book worth reading. Here’s a Christian who actually gets his faith right, and that’s rare enough. (Which is also why I doubt it’ll ever be a bestseller — there’s too much “suck it up” and not enough squishy “you’re so powerful because you agree with me” pablum.)

      Plus, it’s a short book.

      I just tire of being called arrogant — by extension or obliquely or with a nudge and wink and plausible deniability — because I don’t believe in Jesus anymore. Fortunately, that piece of the book is very brief, and the rest of it is focused where it should be: on the spiritual character development of Christian believers.

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