A health care executive devoted his summer reading in 2009 to how the British had cracked the Germans’ wartime communications codes in World War II. Debates about health care reform were raging in Congress, and the outcome of those debates would have a large impact on the executive’s company. While he paid attention to those debates, he was also reading much more widely. He thought that understanding the dynamics of the British strategy would help him think in a more innovative way about the long-term strategic issues his company faced.
Timothy Wilson’s Redirect: The Surprising New Science of Psychological Change outlines a story editing approach to helping people reframe their lives to become more hopeful. Wilson, a distinguished professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, contrasts the billions of dollars we have spent on some well-intentioned but ineffective (or, worse, counterproductive) strategies with story-editing approaches that have been carefully tested and shown to make a positive difference. Wilson’s analysis is important to Christian leaders because he shows the power of story in shaping hope, and what he calls story editing has clear connections to what people discover when we locate our stories in the life-giving and life-transforming power of the gospel. Wilson’s earlier book, Strangers to Ourselves, is also fascinating and filled with insights for Christian leaders; he has a gift for presenting careful research in illuminating, accessible prose.
Christie Hodgen’s Elegies for the Brokenhearted is a beautifully crafted, haunting novel about family, belonging, and the ravages of poverty and brokenness. The story is told as five elegies for people whose misfortunes and bad decisions have shaped Mary Murphy’s damaged life: an uncle, a classmate, a roommate, a piano prodigy, and her mother. Each elegy is addressed to “you” and reveals the ways in which our lives are shaped by those people who enter and exit them, for good and for ill. Hodgen’s eloquent prose and unforgettable characters offer a poignant depiction of brokenness and a longing for peace -- with God, with others, and with ourselves.
Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption is an exquisitely told real-life story of Louis Zamperini, an example of the old saw that the truth is often stranger than fiction. As a boy he was an incorrigible mischief-maker; as a teenager he discovered a passion for running and became a U.S. Olympian at the 1936 Berlin Games; as a young adult he became an airman in World War II. His plane was shot down over the Pacific, and he survived in a small life raft for a record-setting 47 days; he was then tortured by the Japanese while a prisoner of war. At the end of the war he returned to the United States and deteriorated into alcohol abuse until he heard the gospel of forgiveness preached at a Billy Graham crusade and was converted. He returned to Japan to offer forgiveness and to seek reconciliation and peace with his captors. Unbroken combines Hillenbrand’s beautiful prose with Zamperini’s extraordinary life to examine profound issues of tragedy and triumph, grief and joy, despair and redemption, brutality and forgiveness. The book also illumines how resilience is a virtue crucial to the formation of character, the renewal of the human spirit, and the gift of exemplary leadership, in addition to the will to survive against unimaginable odds. Zamperini, still alive at the age of 95, has embodied in his adult life the interpretive charity to which I hope all Christians aspire.
Christine Pohl’s Living Into Community: Cultivating Practices That Sustain Us offers theological wisdom to enable people to discover and maintain life-giving relationships. Pohl describes four practices: embracing gratitude as a way of life, making and keeping promises, living truthfully, and practicing hospitality. She offers rich descriptions of each, then analyzes complications involved in practicing them. She also addresses both what weakens and what strengthens our ability to live into those practices. Pohl’s analysis has significant implications for shaping pastoral ministry, and it is also a guide for leaders of Christian institutions and Christian leaders of institutions. We will lead people in life-giving ways only as we ourselves embrace gratitude, make and keep promises, live truthfully, and practice hospitality -- and as we cultivate communities and institutions that do so. Pohl’s analysis builds on her earlier book Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition, and together they offer an important Christian witness to our fragmented culture, including inside the church.
I conclude with an article that provides a useful introduction to the thinking of Clayton Christensen. The May 14, 2012, issue of The New Yorker includes the profile “When Giants Fail: What Business Has Learned from Clayton Christensen,” an insightful overview of his pioneering work on disruptive innovation. Christensen’s insights started with a focus on for-profit businesses in his classic book The Innovator’s Dilemma, and recently he has written books applying his theory to health care, K–12 education, and higher education. I have found these books immensely helpful, and Christensen’s theory offers cautionary tales for leaders of any institution. It should be understood by Christians thinking about how we engage faithfully in the work of renewing our existing institutions and creating new ones.