Failing to Fail

I watched two performances at sporting events this last week that should tell us how much we as a culture hate failure. We have an irrational fear of failure. We are scared to death of messing up, especially in front of others. And when we see someone fail, we attack like sharks. So, we play it safe, avoiding any loss, and end up average, at best. We are failing to fail. And that’s a big problem.

The first performance was bad. You may have heard about – but hopefully didn’t actually hear – Fergie’s rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner at the 2018 NBA All Star Game. I won’t link to the actual performance. I’ll spare you that much. It was pretty bad. I didn’t watch it live, and couldn’t stomach listening to the whole thing on playback.

Twitter exploded! Facebook mocked her! Once one person said something, two more piled on. Pretty soon people with absolutely no musical expertise or experience were calling her out. When people who couldn’t sing their way out of a paper sack sit in judgment of another person with infinitely more talent, there’s something going on.

I couldn’t put my finger on it, and then I read this report in People Magazine. Fergie, for her part, faced the music. She didn’t sugarcoat it. She owned her failure. This is what she had to say:

“I’ve always been honored and proud to perform the national anthem and last night I wanted to try something special for the NBA. I’m a risk taker artistically, but clearly this rendition didn’t strike the intended tone. I love this country and honestly tried my best.”

The second performance was not a success, but it wasn’t a failure either. Elizabeth Swaney skied the halfpipe for Hungary. Through a series of technicalities, she became an Olympic athlete. Though she’s never finished higher than 13th in a competition, she found herself on the biggest stage of them all.

And then she proceeded to complete the most average run of any Olympic event in history. Her goal? To not fall over. Just don’t fail. No jumps, no tricks. Just up and down the halfpipe with a couple of turns and then come to the end. She finished dead last. But she never fell down.

So, we have two women. One risked it all and failed miserably. The other played it safe and got to the Olympics. Which one do you want to be? I want to be a failure.

We say that we want a winner. But what we’re really looking for is perfection. Don’t fail and don’t fall! But what does that get you? Not a place on the podium, that’s for sure. Elizabeth Swaney will go down as a footnote, likely forgotten by the rest of us but loved by her family.

Fergie on the other hand? She’ll go on to make more music and win more awards. That’s right, she’s won multiple Grammies, AMAs, MTV and Billboard music awards. In fact, there’s an entire Wikipedia page just for the awards she’s been nominated for or won. She didn’t get there by playing it safe, turning in an average performance, and never falling down.

Go back to that quote from People Magazine. “I’m a risk taker,” she says. And that’s why we all know who she is. Without the risk, you’ll never have failure. But you’ll never have great success either. You’ll stay average at best.

I’ve heard the phrase “failure is not an option.” If that’s the case, then take the easy road, the middle path, the safe route. Do everything average. Don’t risk it!

But when failure is an option, there’s no telling how high you can go.

A friend of mine was interviewed for a job this week. She was asked what percentage of failure from her students was acceptable. “100%,” she said. “I want them all failing every single day. If they’re not failing, then they may never know how great they can actually be.”

Our fear of failure has crippled us. Instead of doing something great, we just want to avoid falling down. I’m the guiltiest! I do this constantly! Chase the sure thing and avoid the faceplant. But without risking it, you’ll never know how great you can be.

Do we have a failure problem? Are we failing to fail? Maybe we need to risk more, put ourselves out there and face the failure. Otherwise, we may be leaving a lot on the shelf and never get a chance to make the podium.

Book Review: This Strange and Sacred Scripture, by Matthew Richard Schlimm

The Bible is your friend! That’s what Matthew Schlimm wants you to know. From the first lines of Genesis to the last vision of Revelation.

But Christians and the Old Testament have had a love/hate relationship at times. So Schlimm wants to offer some reconciliation. In order to do that, he tackles some of the trickiest aspects of the old sacred text. I love how he handles the topics in a very orderly manner, beginning with the creation account and working his way through the Tanak. And he leaves no stone unturned.

Instead of offering concrete answers to all your questions about the texts, he gives an overview of the leading discussions. Then he lets you decide. More than a polemic on the problems of scripture, Schlimm wants to reintroduce his audience to the text in a way that provides both clarity and comfort. The Bible is our friend, after all.

By the end you’ve covered a lot of ground. And Schlimm gives plenty of resources to go deeper. What you won’t find is the old tired apologies about inerrancy or infallibility. What you will find is a new love for the Old Testament. But don’t take my word for it. Pick this up and say hi to an old friend today!

Book Review: So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, by Jon Ronson

We love a good pile on, don’t we? We love to see someone get what’s coming to them. Except when it’s us. Then we cry for mercy.

At the heart of Jon Ronson’s book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed is this dichotomy. How has the advent of social media given us such a ready outlet for (sometimes violent) shaming? And how can we turn it off when it’s directed at us?

Shaming works. And that’s why so many publicly shame others. But at what cost? Ronson delves into the data to determine how lives have been wrecked and who has paid the greater price when publicly shaming goes awry. From a poor joke at a conference to a photo splashed throughout Twitter to a rape-themed backlash on 4Chan. A simple misspoken word in a moment can lead to a lifetime of regret and ruined reputation.

Ronson himself faced publicly shaming and backlash from the publication of this book. When he offered that shaming a joke sent on Twitter about AIDS and Africa was overblown, he was called racist. He readily ascribes to the title of Social Justice Warrior, and this book gets at the ugly roots of that endeavor. What strikes me is what we call justice nowadays. No longer do we look out for victims. We see blood in the water and plunge in like sharks. But justice and punishment aren’t the same. Shaming is punitive, never restorative. And justice must be more wholistic.

I would love to hear what you get out of this book. And if you enjoy it, by all means find more from Jon Ronson. He’s one of my favorite writers, and there’s no shame in that.

Book Review: How to Read Literature Like a Professor, by Thomas C. Foster

Want to read better? I don’t mean read faster or read more. And I don’t even mean read better books. I mean just flat out read better. I mean read and know what you’re reading. Well then, you should read like a professor.

And professors – or at least literature professors – do read better than you and me. Because they understand what is going on behind the words. Thomas Foster invites us to go behind those words with him. His book How to Read Literature Like a Professor gives insights that you can only gain by taking several years of deep study classes in the classics.

For instance, did you know that when it rains in a book it may actually be talking about a character purifying herself or her surroundings? And that trip the hero took and encountered all kinds of problems? It’s really a shout out to Homer’s Odyssey. And don’t forget the Bible! Never forget how much literature borrows from the Bible.

Each chapter is rich in examples from literature and even film, and that may be the only time this book bogs down a bit. But otherwise this is a rich reservoir of information for any reader out there. Pick it up and put it in your library!

Book Review: 50 Core Truths of the Christian Faith, by Gregg Allison

The problem with most theology books is accessibility. Whether it’s the jargon, the heady material, or the large page count, for the average Christian reader who just wants to understand God better the theology book shelf gets pretty bare.

The option is usually theology lite. Picking up books that are weighted more towards theological platitudes than deep truths is the modus operandi of most of us. But the thirst to know more is still there.

Gregg R. Allison attempts to slake that thirst. His book on 50 core truths is literally a theological text book but written in a very accessible manner. The sections are presented in the traditional systematic theology of the protestant tradition. And each section is then broken down into easy to read chapters with simple scripture references and ready-made teaching outlines. Obviously, this work is tailored for Sunday School teachers and small group leaders. Yet because of its simple and systematic layout it can find a place on anyone’s bookshelf.

Allison writes in the conservative tradition, and as such he doesn’t provide much space for the debates about each doctrine. That’s both good and bad. This works best as a theological primer with an eye towards knowing that there are diverse voices out there. After all, you have to learn to walk before you can dance.

Disclaimer: The publisher provided me with a copy of this book in exchange for a fair review.

Book Review: Open to the Spirit, by Scot McKnight

Full disclosure: I grew up in a Pentecostal church with a decidedly charismatic bent. I remember hearing older saints cry out in the middle of service in an “unknown tongue” and then wait while someone else declares the “translation.” It was normal for me, but eventually I learned it wasn’t normal for everyone.

Scot McKnight didn’t grow up like I did. And because of that, he has a different take on the work of the Holy Spirit. Rather than providing a fully-fledged theology on the topic, he’s written Open to the Spirit. The book has a more devotional slant to it. And because of that, it outlasts the endless theologies written on the topic.

But the real element of uniqueness is McKnight’s personal perspective on the topic. He provides some of his own biography as a way to frame the argument in favor of a more fervent and vital presence of the Holy Spirit in our churches. He didn’t grow up in a charismatic church, he doesn’t serve in one now, and his own experiences were mostly positive. As an outsider, though, he may have a better handle on it and gives a fuller polemic for churches who resist the move of the Spirit.

Unfortunately I felt several times in this book that being open to the Spirit meant going halfway. He is not willing to fully embrace all aspects of the charismatic perspective – including prophetic and miraculous gifts. That’s to be expected, though. But I wonder if writing in conversation with two other voices – one for and one against these items – may produce a fuller examination. Regardless, the work presented by McKnight is definitely worth your time!

Disclaimer: The publisher provided me with a copy of this book in exchange for a fair review.


Book Review: After Acts, by Bryan Litfin

Have you ever watched a movie based on true events? At the end they run an image of each main character and give you a short sentence or two about what they’ve been up to since the story ended. Or maybe you’ve seen those “Where are they now?” segments in magazines or on TV. We love to find out, along with Paul Harvey, the rest of the story.

If you’ve ever wondered what happened to the main characters of the New Testament after the final words were written, then you can go through hundreds and hundreds of extra-Biblical writings. You can learn Latin and Greek and Armenian. You can filter through all the existing early documents from the Church Fathers. You can weigh whether what they say is true or false or legend or myth.

Or you can pick up After Acts and let Bryan Litfin do that for you. He takes all the material that we have on the lives of the Apostles and other biblical figures and weighs them out. He can do this because of his extensive background in church history. And since we don’t have the same background, we can trust him.

Did Mark really found the church in Alexandria, Egypt? Did Thomas make his way to India or Edessa? How did Peter really die? These are the types of questions that Litfin answers. And along the way he gives some great insights into the compilation of the New Testament texts, the assembling of the cannon, and the early politics of the Church.

Litfin’s assessment is fair (although admittedly conservative), but he gives you a sliding scale rather than a full “yes” or “no” answer on each issue. At the end of each chapter he lists a few of the major theories about the character and then grades them (A to F) on whether or not they’re reliable. That way you can decide for yourself. But the rest of the story? Litfin does a great job giving you that.

Disclaimer: The publisher provided me with a copy of this book in exchange for a fair review.