Monday, March 16, 2015

Book Review: Ordinary: Extraordinarily Bad

With a lot of my interest in valuing the Brother Lawrence-esque approaches to life, I was eager and hopeful to read Ordinary: How to Turn the World Upside Down. The book description is very much in line with what I like to emphasize:
What if the path toward an extraordinary life is becoming more ordinary?
Ordinary is not a call to be more radical. If anything, it is a call to the contrary. The kingdom of God isn’t coming with light shows, and shock and awe, but with lowly acts of service. Tony Merida wants to push back against sensationalism and “rock star Christianity,” and help people understand that they can make a powerful impact by practicing ordinary Christianity.
Through things such as humble acts of service, neighbor love, and hospitality, Christians can shake the foundations of the culture. In order to see things happen that have never happened before, Christians must to do what Christians have always done­. Christians need to become more ordinary. 
Let’s think together about how we, ordinary people, doing ordinary things, might turn the world upside down.
However, the book is minimally about the value of ordinary things. Rather, it is really a rather legalistic argument for some social acts with a lot of assumptions, offensive statements, and bad theology. Sadly, the narration made the entire book sound like a dry speech rather than something with passion and life behind it.

The biggest problem I had with this text was Merida's reasons for loving others. In biblical Christianity, we love others because we are infused with the love of God and this is the fundamental frame with how we approach other people. However, Merida asks us to love people to meet Jesus’ commands, to be able to preach the Gospel explicitly, and to show the world that Christians are not all that bad. These are not the reasons Jesus asks us to love our neighbor. They may be added benefits, but if we do "good works" for these reasons, we functionally doing the acts for manipulative purposes, and we will hurt and damage other people.

This is where he gets into some of his offensive framings. Some examples:

  • He talks about foster care not costing anything financially and actually coming with financial incentives. While technically true, we shouldn't even be discussing this if we're approaching foster care out of divine compassion. Having worked with plenty of foster families, I've seen some who essentially do it for the allowance. It's incredibly damaging. Those who foster for the right reasons wind up spending plenty of their own money.
  • Merida horribly adds stigma to foster youth when he explains that foster youth often age out with only $500, which doesn’t last long, so that is why, he argues, that it's not surprising that many former foster youth turn to crimes, gangs, and prostitution. He needs to do some accurate research and recognize the implications of sharing uninformed slices of the lives of the voiceless. This statement does nothing to help the situation and likely only damages a very difficult system.
  • He also adds stigma to prisoners. While encouraging readers to welcome prisoners into their homes, he explains how one family told the prisoner he could not be at home without another member present, and the father told his daughter to block the door with her dresser at night. This framing just reinforces negative (and often inaccurate) stereotypes about the untrustworthy and dangerous nature of former prisoners.
  • Merida sounded self-congratulatory about adopting a fifth child from Ethiopia after four adoptions from the Ukraine: Their reason for adoption was because "We had enough love in our hearts." He talked about the need to rescue children as fundamental to adoption. Later, he calls adoption the "Cinderella doctrine of Pauline doctrine." As being a proud adoptive parent, this is the kind of approach to adoption that stigmatizes adoption and causes true psychological damage in adoptees.
  • On a related note, his cultural insensitivity is astounding. He told stories of his Ukrainian-born son wanting a "sun tanned" brother (referring to his Ethiopian heritage) without recognizing the potential problematic interpretation. I don't blame the child; but this is a learning moment, even if to the reader only. He also talks later about his Ethiopian-born child not wanting to eat salad and thinking of his own mother's response to his asking why he needed to eat food: Because there are starving children in Africa. Rather than talking about how international adoption has opened his worldview and challenged his assumptions, he casually states, "Well, I guess that's not always true."
Merida also states things that are just wrong, both socially and theologically, that contribute to stigma and culture wars. Towards the end of the book, he asserts that despair is one of the greatest sins. This is one of the most psychologically harmful statements Christians make. And there's not legitimate theological support for it.

He also states at the start of the book about tolerance being problematic because we should not agree with others in the name of tolerance. Except tolerance is not agreement. It is simply acknowledging differences and allowing differences to exist without trying to force the other person to change. By incorrectly stating that one must agree in order to be tolerant, Merida is effectively advocating for a homogenous culture.

Finally, he argues that a quote attributed to Francis of Assisi ("preach the Gospel always, and if necessary, use words") is wrong. Merida emphasizes that words are always required, as we much explicitly direct people toward Christ. Some Christians believe this, but I find this to be a legalistic, narrow interpretation of the Gospel that misses its true heart, along the lines of the start of this review.

Ultimately, the book title and description is completely misleading. Merida argues that any ordinary person can engage in acts that some may call social justice (I have a hard time calling what he's saying social justice as the true justice component is missing, and there is a lot of social inaccuracies and offensiveness), but his whole book is about encouraging people to engage in prescribed activities that explicitly match biblical mandates.

In contrast, some of the central beauty of the Gospel is that lives (and even social systems) can be transformed by simply living life in a Christ-like way, loving people out of a fundamental character virtue stance of love and valuing of life and making simple decisions that contribute to systemic change that treats all people as made and loved by God.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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