Paul L. Caron
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Sunday, September 18, 2022

Low Anthropology: The Unlikely Key To A Gracious View Of Others (And Yourself)

David Zahl (Director, Mockingbird Ministries), Low Anthropology: The Unlikely Key to a Gracious View of Others (and Yourself) (2022):

Low AnthropologyMany of us spend our days feeling like we're the only one with problems, while everyone else has their act together. But the sooner we realize that everyone struggles like we do, the sooner we can show grace to ourselves and others.

In Low Anthropology, popular author and theologian David Zahl explores how our ideas about human nature influence our expectations in friendship, work, marriage, and politics. We all go through life with an "anthropology"—an idea about what humans are like, our potentials and our limitations. A high anthropology—thinking optimistically about human nature—can breed perfectionism, anxiety, burnout, loneliness, and resentment. Meanwhile, Zahl invites readers into a biblically rooted and surprisingly life-giving low anthropology, which fosters hope, deep connection with others, lasting love, vulnerability, compassion, and happiness.

Zahl offers a liberating view of human nature, sin, and grace, showing why the good news of Christianity is both urgent and appealing. By embracing a more accurate view of human beings, readers will discover a true and lasting hope.

Christianity Today Book Review, There Is No One Fully Optimized, Not Even One:

Zahl, founder and director of Mockingbird Ministries, readily acknowledges that we all-too-frequently feel that “everyone else is happy and not struggling.” The solution, he contends, lies in readjusting our anthropology.

Before that impressive-sounding word puts off his readers, he quickly explains that anthropology simply means understanding what it is to be human. “Whether we realize it or not,” he writes, “our personal anthropology funds expectations in our relationships, jobs, marriages, and politics. Its bearing on our worldview—and therefore our happiness—cannot be overstated.”

Zahl plots anthropologies on a linear spectrum. Up one end is a “high anthropology,” characterized by optimistic—in fact, perfectionistic—assumptions about human nature. Down the other end is a “low anthropology,” which represents a far more modest—though not hopelessly pessimistic—alternative.

In the first part of his argument, Zahl analyzes what he calls the three pillars of low anthropology. In the second, he investigates the mechanics of why we avoid low anthropology and what fruit it can bear when we embrace it. And in his final part, Zahl explores practical applications of low anthropology in the realms of self, relationship (read: marriage), politics, and religion.

Zahl’s analysis of the three pillars is a compelling read, especially for any sufferers of chronic impostor syndrome (ahem). ...

[F]inally, comes the last chapter (“Low Anthropology in Religion”) and with it a clear, compelling, and glorious presentation of the gospel. At last, the reader receives meaningful insight into a specifically Christian understanding of forgiveness, hope, mercy, grace, faith, and what it is to be human. Yet regrettably, this chapter proves problematic for two reasons—one functional and the other theological.

Functionally, Zahl’s relation of low anthropology to the gospel simply comes too late. The chapter seems intended as a big reveal—Ta-da! The answer was Jesus all along! However, this last-minute shift is jarring after spending the previous nine chapters reading as many appeals, if not more, to secular sociology than to the Bible or Christian theology. As such, the Christian reader is likely to experience a case of whiplash, while the non-Christian reader must feel like the victim of a bait and switch.

The final chapter is also theologically problematic. While Zahl wonderfully expounds the gospel in its pages, the book’s broader argument doesn’t prepare the ground adequately for revealing Jesus as the ultimate answer.

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