Author Archive | Stephen Barkley

Lives Entrusted | Barbara J. Blodgett

The cover of Blodgett's Lives Entrusted

The ability to trust other people is fundamental to the human experience. Trust is “the very basis for acting in the world—our sense of security, our relationships, and our ability to navigate through problems. Without it, life becomes despairing” (8). In Lives Entrusted, Barbara J. Blodgett develops a philosophy of trust which she uses to explore four “relational practices” (31) of ministry: confidentiality, misconduct, gossip, and bullshit. Blodgett is concerned with how trust operates as a verb. Trust is something we do. More specifically, “[t]rust is a transaction that establishes a relationship” (2).

A Philosophy of Trust

Blodgett approaches trust with a philosopher’s eye. She examines the phenomenon from a variety of angles in order to precisely describe the structural features of trust. This process is evident in chapter one when Blodgett rejects three impostors of trust. First, trust resembles familiarity since we often trust those whom we are familiar with. However, there are times when we trust strangers and withhold trust from people who are familiar to us (17). Second, trust also resembles reliance since we rely on people whom we trust. Blodgett considers motivation here. Some people are reliable simply because they follow a set of instructions which indicates something less than a trust relationship (18). Third, trust resembles consistency, since we trust people who behave in a consistent fashion. Sometimes, however, relationships require rule-breaking or inconsistency in order to be trusting (18). Continue Reading →

Western Theology | Steven M. Studebaker

Steven M. StudebakerJohn 3:8 instructs: “The wind blows wherever it pleases, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going.” Therefore theologians should not ensconce themselves in a sycophantic echo chamber of traditional Western theology.

— Studebaker, From Pentecost to the Triune God, 170.

The System of the World

The cover of Stephenson's The System of the WorldI had two thoughts upon finishing this:

  1. Phew!
  2. I should read them again.

This third volume completes Neal Stephenson’s three volume, eight book, million+ word Baroque Cycle (alongside Quicksilver and The Confusion). The length and intricate detail of this epic makes the conclusion that much sweeter. Plot threads left dangling hundreds of thousands of words earlier suddenly return with one-armed vengeance!

This cycle can be appreciated on so many levels. The plot is gripping—especially in this third volume. The prose sucks you into the world of eighteenth century Europe. The philosophical debates are engaging. The characters feel as real as your neighbours.

The part that impressed me the most was a detailed theological debate between two characters in the eighth book. When the characters started to argue I began to worry. Theology is my discipline and I expected to find errors and omissions in Stephenson’s work. To my surprise, the author handled the minutiae of eighteenth century theology with great insight! This increased my confidence in the rest of his historical research.

The Baroque Cycle is historical fiction like no other. It is gripping literature at its finest. If you haven’t yet read it, I envy you. You’re in for a wild ride.


Stephenson, Neal. The System of the World. New York: Harper Perennial, 2004.

In Christ | Ernst Käsemann

Ernst Kasemann‘In Christ’ is the state of those who through the gospel are called out of the old world and who only belong to the new creation in so far as they continue to be confronted with the Lord who justifies the ungodly.

—Käsemann, Perspectives on Paul, 101.

Ethical Leadership | Walter Earl Fluker

The cover of Fluker's Ethical LeadershipEthical Leadership was written to an America in crisis. In 2009, the date of publication, Walter Earl Fluker lamented a nation involved in “two costly wars; struggling with financial crisis precipitated by unscrupulous ethical practices on Wall Street; recovering from a presidential campaign that degenerated into character assassination based on race, religion, and unresolved cultural wars” (vii). The following years have only seen the issues grow more severe. We are in desperate need of ethical leadership.

Ethical leadership is the successful navigation of two worlds: lifeworlds and systemworlds.

“Lifeworlds” refers to the commonplace, everyday traffic of life where people meet and greet one another, where common values and presuppositions about order and the world are held. “Systemworlds” refers to the vast, often impersonal bureaucratic systems dominated by money and power (economics and politics and the various structures of communications and technology), which are frequently at odds with the pedestrian traffic of lifeworlds. (7)

A leader navigates the intersection of these two worlds through three ethical practices which have corresponding dimensions (viii) and are each marked by three virtues (130):

  1. Character  is the personal realm marked by integrity, empathy, and hope.
  2. Civility is the societal realm marked by reverence, respect, and recognition.
  3. Community is the spiritual realm marked by courage, justice, and compassion.

This three-times-three matrix forms “The Ethical Leadership ModelTM” which Fluker fleshes out by drawing on the work of Howard Washington Thurman and Martin Luther King Jr. along with a variety of voices from the black church.

On the positive side, Ethical Leadership is a thoughtful elucidation of many key virtues. Fluker’s selection and categorization was often thought provoking. You might expect reverence to be a spiritual virtue, but he explains it with respect to civility. Conversely, he explains the spiritual value of courage where I would have assumed it to be a personal virtue.

Unfortunately, two features took away from the value of the book. First, the selection and categorization of virtues seemed arbitrary. It is uncertain why he chose some virtues and ignored others. Second, his writing style didn’t suit the subject matter. He wrote about these academic issues like a preacher would preach. There were few concise sentences. If one term was sufficient, two were better, and three were preferred. This style undermined clarity and added (unnecessarily) to the length of the book.

The “The Ethical Leadership ModelTM” developed by Fluker is still a timely message, but it would be better experienced in a live conference than a book.


Fluker, Walter Earl. Ethical Leadership: The Quest for Character, Civility, and Community. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2009.

Calling and Character | William H. Willimon

The cover of Willimon's Calling and CharacterWe clergy ought not to flatter ourselves, as if our clerical vocation somehow placed a greater burden upon our backs than the challenge that taking up the cross and following Jesus holds for any disciple. (9)

These words, from the first paragraph of the introduction, indicate the unconventional wisdom of William H. Willimon. He turns many of the common perspectives about the life of the pastor on their head. For another example, consider his thoughts on burnout:

The great ethical danger for clergy is not that we might “burn out,” to use a metaphor that is popular in our time, not that we might lose the energy required to do ministry. Our danger is that we might “black out,” that is lose consciousness of why we are here and who we are called to be for Christ and his church. (21)

In every page of Calling and Character, Willimon reminds clergy of “why we are here and who we are called to be” (21). The call to ministry is a high calling. Rather than waste time lamenting the “pedestal” we’re sometimes placed upon, clergy should buck up and wear the mantle. To nuance that metaphor, it is incumbent upon clergy to develop a virtuous character so the mantle actually fits.

Richard B. Hays used three biblical images to frame his ethics: community, cross, and new creation. Willimon uses this threefold framework to develop his ministerial ethics. Clergy are those people “who embody Christian community, cross, and new creation in their lives” (59).

You may agree wholeheartedly with everything Willimon has to say—or not. Regardless of your position on the various issues, Willimon will challenge you to examine your life and practice in light of a high clerical vision.


Willimon, William H. Calling and Character: Virtues of the Ordained Life. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2000.

 

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