Living in a Catholic bubble can be nice, but I like to pop my head outside and take a look around every now and then. In the context of Austin CNM, that means reading books by non-Catholics or without explicit religious themes for this Catholic book review column. Sometimes that leads me to gems like Mere Christianity and pleasant surprises like Bound Together. But even when I select a book that doesn’t ignite that spark, I always find something to learn.
Starting at the End: Worldview, God’s Word, and Your Future, by Brad Alles, is another non-Catholic book choice. Published by Concordia Publishing House, the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod’s official imprint, it shares a viewpoint I don’t hear very often. If you’re unfamiliar with the structure of the Lutheran Church in the U.S., its major branches are the much larger Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) and the smaller Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod (LCMS). The difference is something like the Latin and all the Eastern Rites of the Catholic Church. Generally speaking, most Lutherans you meet in this country are ELCA. Lutheran liturgy and theology are quite similar to Catholic liturgy and theology, with notable differences such as the priestly ordination of women, the Eucharist, and other sacraments. I’ve never been to a Lutheran church service, but the Lutherans I know don’t seem totally thrown off by Catholic worship.
Naturally, I expected those similarities to translate to my experience of reading Starting at the End. The premise of the book is that the way people behave in their everyday lives is based on what they see as their ultimate end (their telos, for my theology friends). If you are an atheist who believes that there is no afterlife, you will behave differently than a Christian who fears going to hell. Alles examines five different views of “the end” (secular humanist, Marxist, new age, Islamic, and Christian) to understand why adherents of those views behave as they do.
Going in, I expected a balanced presentation (although biased toward the LCMS, of course) of all five views with some final analysis. That’s not what I found. Atheism might have been a better “religion” to consider than secular humanism. I know people who are atheists, and people say they “believe in science,” but I don’t think I’ve met anyone who is a secular humanist. Atheism doesn’t have a neatly defined set of beliefs (or disbeliefs, I suppose), but I found its exclusion odd. Marxism and new age are also falling out of fashion, although socialism (a precursor to Marxism) is rising. The last time I heard someone reference Marxism, it was while I was studying how to teach literary critical methods…in grad school…four years ago. New age seems distinctly 70’s. Islam is a hot topic, so that’s relevant, but for a new book, everything else seemed dated. Similarly, I was surprised at how much of the book was spent explaining Christian eschatology (views of “the end”). I read an e-book, so about 50% was split between the four non-Christian belief systems, 25% was devoted to Christianity, and the last 25% was further commentary on Christianity. I got bored. If the audience of a book such as this is already Christian, why spend so much time on Christianity in a book that seems to be about other traditions?
Even though I didn’t really like Starting at the End, I think the premise as I understood it is a good idea. If your ultimate life goal is to become rich, you will live your life with that in mind. If you believe there is a God, that colors everything you do. If you believe that everyone and everything is God, that will affect your life, too, and probably the lives of people around you. Understanding what someone is ultimately seeking helps you understand them, and understanding is an excellent goal in and of itself.
Disclosure: I received a free copy of Starting at the End from the publisher in exchange for my honest review.