Daring To Be Eccentric

Confidence: How to Succeed at Being Yourself, by Alan Loy McGinnis (Augsburg, 189 pp.; $4.50, paper). Reviewed by David Neff.

Loy McGinnis writes strange self-help books. Most motivational, be-your-own-shrink tomes promise the moon and deliver disappointment. But McGinnis’s content, belying the cover ballyhoo, strikes a cautious common-sensical note that actually makes self-improvement sound within reach.

McGinnis, who also wrote The Friendship Factor and Bringing Out the Best in People, is codirector of the Valley Counseling Center in Glendale, California, and a Presbyterian minister. He is a conservative spirit. Words like balance and middle ground crop up in this book, as McGinnis cautions readers not to expect too much of themselves or life—and encourages them not to settle for too little, either. Another motivational writer might make this material far more exciting, but McGinnis’s mundane believability builds confidence.

“Dare to be a little eccentric,” writes McGinnis, advice based on the fact that our self-confidence is often bound up with what others think of us. We spend far too much energy playing to an ever-present audience. That is, of course, a crummy way to live. (It really may even be rather conceited to believe that other people pay that much attention to our clothes and cars, our wit and wisdom.) McGinnis pairs Romans 12:2 (“Be not conformed …”) with the words of Henry Bayard Swope: “I cannot give you the formula for success but I can give you the formula for failure, which is: Try to please everybody.” We must therefore ground our confidence in our abilities rather than other people’s expectations.

The doctor wishes most of his clients could attain to greater self-confidence. But he also recognizes that we can have too much confidence—theologians would call it pride, he reminds us. For this reason, McGinnis frames the book front and back with cautionary speeches tagged, “Self-Confidence Without Self-Worship.” Building on our Lord’s teaching about the two great commandments (love to God and love to neighbor), McGinnis asserts that “there are to be two anchors to our self-assurance: worship and compassion.” Indeed, it seems that for McGinnis, no tonic is so salutary for the self-concept as a nip of self-giving service.

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Christianity Today Talks To Alan Loy Mcginnis

Do you think we can have too much self-confidence?

We certainly can. The essence of pride is to try to usurp the place of God—and in much of the psychological literature, I encounter an encouragement to believe that we’re wonderful in every way, and that if well just believe hard enough we can do anything.

The fact is that we’re not wonderful in every way. To simply tell people to love themselves is not enough because there are parts of ourselves we don’t want to love and that we shouldn’t love. There are parts that we should correct and change.

How should we relate to our dark side?

We need to remodel it, but we can never remodel all of it. The paradox is that we are unable to remodel it until we acknowledge it. A lot of Christians are so afraid of their dark side that they put a lot of psychic energy into holding it at arm’s length, so that they never get a grasp of what it is that needs to be remodeled.

Much of the progress of coming to self-confidence is facing the truth about ourselves. There is something about looking the dark side squarely in the eye that causes it to lose some of its power over us. The only emotion that can hurt is the unacknowledged emotion.

You don’t promise very much in your books, do you?

One of the problems with self-help books is that it is easy to overstate the case. You make people feel worse instead of better, especially if you paint the picture that you can have oodles of friends and be ecstatically happy simply by having the right attitudes.

I find this many times within Christian circles when we depict the rewards of conversion such that some sincere Christians think they must not have been really converted or that they are doing something terribly wrong because they’re not ecstatically happy. We have done them a disservice.

I used to keep thinking that I would be happy when I got one more degree or when I got a particular job or when I got financial security. But every time I reached a goal, I was so disappointed—the victory was so empty. Finally I realized that I will never hit some plateau of happiness in this world. In fact, I won’t ever have a day of unmitigated happiness, because happiness seems to come in bits and pieces. I never have a day, though, when God does not offer me moments of reward and fulfillment and happiness; and my task is to savor those as they come.

What Everybody Used To Know

Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know, by E. D. Hirsch, Jr. (Houghton-Mifjlin, 251 pp.; $16.95, cloth). Reviewed by Ross Pavlac, a Chicago-based writer and computer systems analyst.

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On a recent Focus on the Family broadcast, Dr. James Dobson said AIDS might become “the new Black Plague.” To Dobson’s astonishment, letters poured in accusing him of racist slurs. The complaints were numerous enough that Dobson had to take additional air time to explain his reference to the bubonic plague that ravaged Europe and Asia in the fourteenth century.

Dobson had assumed that his listeners were aware of the terrible disease that killed large portions of the population during the Middle Ages. But he was wrong, and ended up confusing listeners rather than informing them.

E. D. Hirsch, Jr., would call this an example of cultural illiteracy. In Cultural Literacy, he contends that “communication between strangers requires an estimate of how much relevant information can be taken for granted in the other person.”

According to Hirsch, there is a shared body of information among literate people in a given culture at a given time, and people who do not share that information are at a disadvantage. This is important to Christians who want to be equipped for public action on important issues—particularly the fierce battles over how to educate our children.

He is not asking us all to earn multiple Ph.D.’s. Rather, “what counts is our ability to grasp the general shape of what we are reading and to tie it to what we already know. If we need details, we rely on the writer or speaker to develop them.”

Hirsch believes a state of cultural literacy existed in the past—but does not now: “We cannot assume that young people today know things that were known in the past by almost every literate person in the culture.”

Who is to blame for the rise of cultural illiteracy? Hirsch points to “Jean Jacques Rousseau, who believed that we should … not impose adult ideas upon [children] before they can truly understand them.” Rousseau’s ideas were expanded upon by John Dewey, “the writer who has most deeply affected American education theory and practice.”

In an interview, Wheaton College (Ill.) philosopher Arthur Holmes commented, “The ‘relevance jag’ of the 1960s, along with an excessive job orientation on the part of many parents and students, plus today’s video obsession, have combined to deprive us all of that common heritage of learning which transmits beliefs and values from one generation to another—and makes intelligent discourse possible.” Holmes says, “Cultural Literacy calls us back to reading, and to an education designed to establish the common culture we lack.”

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Ultimate Trivial Pursuit

Cultural literacy very much relates to conventional reading and writing literacy; indeed, Hirsch insists they are intertwined. More than helping Americans to engage in public discourse, he feels that cultural literacy is one key to solving the problem of helping children from disadvantaged backgrounds learn to read and write. These children “miss central implications and associations because they don’t possess the background knowledge to put [reading texts] in context.”

To help educators (and curious laypeople), Hirsch offers a starting point in what must be the ultimate Trivial Pursuit question list: 5,000 terms and names that he and other authorities feel that average late-twentieth-century Americans should know by the time they complete high school. And yes, it includes dozens of direct and indirect biblical references; and yes, Black Death is on the list.

In a sense, Hirsch’s list is politically and culturally neutral. It doesn’t matter whether you are for or against polygamy or Marxism; but he believes you must know what they are. Curricula embedding cultural literacy could be liberal, conservative, or anywhere in-between.

Hirsch rejects both narrow vocational education and strict core curricula. Fast-changing technology makes specific training quickly obsolete; it is better to learn how to cope with change. And rigid core curricula lack imagination.

He acknowledges the danger of his list being used to encourage students to memorize and quickly forget, but that danger is not a consequence of the list so much as a challenge to educators to teach the material in an effective way.

He would agree with his critics that mere knowledge of facts does not constitute literacy; he would insist, however, that in a given culture at a given time there is a set of facts without which one is illiterate.

Cultural Literacy And Social Change

That is also the answer Hirsch has for critics who feel his selection of terms is racist, not allowing for ethnic individuality and a movement toward social equality. “In fact the traditional forms of literate culture are precisely the most effective instruments for political and social change,” he asserts. “All political discourse at the national level must use the stable forms of the language and its associated culture.… To withhold traditional culture from the school curriculum … in the name of progressive ideas is in fact an unprogressive action that helps preserve the political and economic status quo.”

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David Horner, president of North Park (Ill.) College agrees: “I am not unappreciative of the contemporary insight that popular history needs to be balanced by the history of invisible people and silent voices (e.g., women and blacks). But I agree with Hirsch that the agenda of social reform is weakened by ignorance of our cultural inheritance.”

And Horner believes it is important for Christian educators within the Christian subculture to apply Hirsch’s basic analysis to our specific situation: “Christians can readily assent to the importance of a common body of data for preserving a spiritual heritage. The retelling of the acts of God is fundamental for us as a Christian community, just as a cultural heritage can only be passed on on the basis of common knowledge.”

Cultural Literacy should be read by Christian educators and teachers, parents involved in home schooling, and anyone concerned about having a well-rounded background.

The List

An Excerpt

Here are a few terms from E. D. Hirsch’s famous 5,000-item list: “What Literate Americans Know.” How many can you identify?




Daley, Mayor

Dali, Salvador

Dallas, Texas


Damn the torpedoes, Full speed ahead.

damn with faint praise

Damocles’ sword

Daniel in the lions’ den

danke schön



Danube River

Dark Ages

dark horse

Darrow, Clarence

Darwin, Charles

David (image)

David and Goliath

David Copperfield (title)

Davis, Jefferson

Hopeful Realism

Tranquillitas Ordinis, by George Weigel (Oxford, 489 pp.; $27.50, hardcover). Reviewed by Mark R. Amstutz, professor and chairman, Department of Political Science, Wheaton College (Ill.).

Recently the National Association of Evangelicals adopted a set of guidelines for the church’s discussion on the problem of peace and freedom in the world. Such documents show that American evangelicals now desire to promote peace and justice internationally. However, if they want to be successful, they will pay attention to the many issues so cogently raised and discussed by George Weigel in this new book.

Weigel is a young, increasingly recognized Catholic scholar. Here he argues that the major Christian political responsibility is to promote tranquillitas ordinis—“a dynamic peace of rightly ordered political community.”

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Weigel’s central thesis is that contemporary American Catholic leaders have abandoned the classical tradition of political thought, a “moderate realism” based on the thought of Augustine and Thomas Aquinas. Weigel thinks the Catholic political heritage is neither pessimistic nor utopian. Rather, it is a hopeful realism rooted in the recognition that people are sinners and also “a spark struck from the creativity of the Godhead.” His aim is to recapture and develop that classical legacy.

Weigel believes the moral framework for assessing American national security issues should consider at least eight fundamental questions. These include: assumptions about human nature, the meaning of peace, the permissibility and method of intervention, the legitimacy of military force, the legitimacy of the existing world system, the nature of transnational obligations, the nature of the Soviet Union, and the nature of the United States.

Weigel suspects Catholic political thought has abandoned the traditional heritage of Catholic political ethics because American Catholic leaders have increasingly accepted neo-isolationism and overreacted against anticommunism. He also laments skepticism about the merits of the American democratic experiment.

Weigel argues that the debate over the U.S. Vietnam policy was the occasion for the virtual abandonment of the classic tradition of political ethics. In addition, he traces the abandonment of the tradition in two other areas: nuclear weapons and the political turmoil in Central America.

Weigel’s study is making waves in political science circles. Students of Catholic theology and political thought will undoubtedly debate several of Weigel’s theses, just as they will question whether his assessment of the 1983 bishops’ pastoral letter on peace demonstrates a sufficient appreciation of the radical discontinuity between conventional and nuclear weapons. But whatever the outcome of these discussions, this study skillfully addresses basic issues about the role of Christian ethics in the quest for a just world order.

Chapters that will be of special interest to evangelicals include those dealing with the tradition of moderate realism, the thought of John Courtney Murray (an influential Jesuit theologian who died in 1967), the major themes of the Catholic political heritage, and the role of the church in promoting world peace.

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