Book Review: Get Your Hands Dirty
In his recent publication through Wipf & Stock on Christian social thought, Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought and Action, Jordan Ballor does exactly that. In fact, Ballor deals seriously with the insights of all sorts of personalities—famous, infamous, and not-so-famous. Ballor’s conversation partners in the question of Christians’ relationship to society range from people as diverse as the previously mentioned Mike Rowe to Michigan fisherman Ed Patnode to Rick Santorum to Pope John Paul II.
Ballor does not hesitate to bring people of all shades and stripes into dialogue with one another through his creative, thoughtful, and accessible writing style. He deals with these divergent voices seriously, dealing with what people say rather than who people are (or who the broader media has painted them to be). Ballor brings all of these voices into conversation with the great cloud of witnesses throughout history, from Irenaeus and Thomas Aquinas to Martin Luther, John Calvin, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and a host of Continental Reformed theologians. With a strong dose of insights from Scripture, Ballor organizes and distills all of this information into a well-informed, straightforward, thoughtful, and compelling book on Christian thought and social action.
Throughout the book, Ballor reveals himself to be one of those rare academics who is both well-read and well-watched, in every sense. He draws captivating analogies from television shows, movies, comic books, and novels, comparing the principles taught in them to findings from scientific and economic studies, news stories, and nonfiction works. In almost all of his references, I was impressed at Ballor’s penchant for looking beneath the surface message to what is presented at a deeper level, analyzing the deep grammar of films, shows, and stories.
Take, for example, his analysis of the 2011 film Contagion, about a global flu outbreak (39-41): Although the film at first glance seems to be about the potential for epidemic dangers due to our globalized human society, Ballor draws out an underlying, subtler, but equally relevant story:
Even as disease represents a danger that can have worldwide impact, such dangers remain the exception rather than the rule. Indeed, the film portrays quite well how global networks of information and exchange are absolutely foundational for our contemporary world. There are clearly institutional and human failures in the film, many of which are quite plausible, or even probable. But it is also clear that global interconnection is not simply negative, even though we often overlook the positive benefits. (40)
This analysis is not the only glimpse into Ballor’s impressive mind, which finds creative ways to relate what can be difficult concepts and principles to the average Joe. The book is replete with references to media as diverse as Bonanza, Saturday Night Live, Breaking Bad, Mad Men, and many others. Any book on Christian thought with an index entry reading “Parker, Peter. See Spiderman” must have something going for it.
In addition to his formidable theological and cultural synthesizing, Ballor deals seriously with Scripture. The entire work is saturated with Bible stories, verses, and references, and Ballor manages to make them speak in ways that may be new (but are more likely old) ways that we have simply forgotten. Ballor’s analysis of the three “lost” parables in Luke 15 (51-54) offers a refreshingly simple and straightforward interpretation of a vastly over-interpreted portion of Scripture. His poignant references to Proverbs seemed delightfully appropriate for insight into how Christians ought to interact with the world. The seriousness with which he deals with the teaching of Christ from the gospels and the straightforwardness with which he articulates principles of natural law from Genesis and Romans both serve to demonstrate the inseparability of Scripture from Christian teachings in a way that will appeal to the sensibilities of a wide variety of readers.
Although Ballor’s book is very accessible, the reading is by no means “light.” I would call it “engaging heavy reading.” While the concepts are clear and the analogies riveting, Ballor has a way of putting so much into a sentence that it can take some time to work through his ideas. I found myself time and time again putting the book down for a few minutes to digest a thought, or re-reading a paragraph to make sure I followed the contours of his thought. There is a lot here, and it is thought provoking. Whether one agrees with all of Ballor’s ideas or not, he offers clarifying insights into many aspects of Christian social thought and action. Even where I disagreed with Ballor, I found his writing helpful for articulating my own positions.
A few basic assumptions underlie Ballor’s work, assumptions that would not surprise anyone familiar with Christian tradition. Central to Ballor’s thesis is the fact that human beings are created in the imago dei, the image of God. Like God, we are naturally oriented to love. Like God, we are naturally creative and industrious. Like God, we are naturally inclined to give of ourselves for the sake of others. Of course, because of the fall of humanity into sin, these naturally inclinations and orientations have been corrupted and twisted by evil. Nevertheless, there remains a natural order of things, inherent in creation and revealed in Scripture, towards which we as responsible human persons ought to strive: love for our neighbor, care for creation, industry, community, procreation, responsible use of resources (in all senses), and mutual recognition and respect of one another’s humanity.
One particularly poignant theme that Ballor strikes home again and again in the book is the nature of human beings as social persons in community, and the corresponding responsibility that we have to that community, which always was, but increasingly (and obviously) is global.
My critiques of the work are few, and do not detract from my wholehearted recommendation that anyone interested in understanding Christian social thought would benefit from reading Ballor’s book. As Ballor mentions in the introduction, the book is a collection of Ballor’s essays from a variety of other publications. This leads the work to be, understandably, eclectic. It is not always clear where one essay ends and another begins (the book is divided into four chapters, but draws from at least a dozen distinct articles previously published by Ballor). Chapters are named according to their content, but it is not always clear how the divergent information contained in a particular chapter relates to other parts of the chapter, much less to the book as a whole. Transitions between topics are sometimes stiff, and sometimes nonexistent. Despite the eclectic nature of the work, however, a thread of unity works its way throughout, bracketed nicely by the introduction and conclusion.
Some minor facts that accrue to the nature of the publication annoyed me when I first read through the book. At times, it is repetitive. Historical figures such as Abraham Kuyper and Dietrich Bonhoeffer are repeatedly introduced with what begins to look like an epithet (“the Dutch statesman and theologian” Abraham Kuyper).
Some contemporary figures, well known in Christian Reformed circles but not necessarily to the broader American Christian community to which Ballor seems to be directing his work, are given no introduction at all, but cited frequently throughout the book—these include Cornelius “Neal” Plantinga, Jr., former president of Calvin Theological Seminary, and Lester DeKoster, former Calvin College librarian. The lack of introduction, or repetition of introductions, likely reflects the medium in which the articles were originally published, but these could have been more carefully standardized or adapted for publication in book form.
All in all, however, Ballor offers a timely, relevant, and engaging contribution to the ongoing conversation about how Christians in the United States ought to relate to society, work, and politics. His work is deeply theoretical, but also very practical. He is deeply thoughtful, but also culturally aware and very engaging. This book would be a worthwhile read for anyone interested in Christian social thought, regardless of political affiliation, denominational affiliation, or theological education. Ballor has truly created a cultural masterpiece that I hope will provoke deep thinking on the issue for a wide spectrum of people.