Image: Caption in Media Library

Bound-Together-cover-compliments-publisherBrauns, Chris. Bound Together: How We Are Tied to Others in Good and Bad Choices. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2013. 208 pages. Paperback. ISBN 978-0-310-49511-6.

On balance, this is an excellent book: well organized, theologically Reformed (in Baptist mode), engaging. Since I am a critical, glass-half-empty sort, and since I’m writing this review in the midst of assorted life problems and annoyances, I will attempt to offer some criticisms. Don’t let these criticisms mislead you; this is one of the better books I’ve read recently and I highly recommend it.

Bound Together has two parts: part one, “Understanding The Principle of The Rope,” comprising chapters one through five; and part two, “Applying the Principle of the Rope,” comprising chapters six through ten. Chapter one, “Strange and Troubling Truth” (23-35), introduces the central motif of Bound Together, what Brauns calls “the principle of the rope.” This phrase is Brauns’ pastoral attempt to make the meaning of a theological concept clear to average readers. The concept is that of “corporate identity” or “solidarity.” He first discusses the concept in general terms of people being “roped” together so that decisions of one affect the fortunes of another; for instance, roped whalers in Melville’s Moby Dick could both expect to drown if the partner they were roped to for a certain operation in the whale harvesting process got clumsy (26-7). Brauns sees this principle, what New Agers might call the “interconnectedness” or “oneness” of people, as a law of life pervasive and undeniable in much the way gravity is undeniable and pervasive (28). (I’ll leave it to others to determine how Brauns’ understanding of the principle of the rope differs from a New Age concept of an ultimate “interconnectedness” or “oneness” of people, beyond the fact that New Agers typically include more than just people in their web of interconnections.)

“There are endless illustrations of this principle…,” Brauns writes. “Recently, when I was out for a walk with my ten-year-old son, I asked him, ‘Benjamin, what do I mean by the principle of the rope?’ He responded….‘….Here’s the best example I can give. Today a couple of kids in my class got in trouble. So none of us got to go out for recess. That’s the principle of the rope.’ So it is….When Ben’s classmates misbehaved, they were ‘roped’ to the rest of the class. Two jumped off the behavioral cliff. And…they pulled the rest of the class down with them” (25, paragraph break removed). This example troubles me. (Admittedly, I am easily troubled.) In a discussion about how, just as everyone succumbs to the law of gravity whether they think it fair or not (28), so all persons are invariably affected by the choices of others (and invariably affect others through their own choices), Brauns introduces an example where clearly no “natural law” of social cause-and-effect was involved: this rope was tied by school officials who decided that punishing all the students for the rogue actions of two was good policy. Shouldn’t ropings arbitrarily effected by human agency be placed in a different category from ropings that simply inhere in the nature of things or that God himself has ordained?

While school officials may have been unjust in their roping together of students, if God ropes persons together there can be no question that doing so is just, since God is perfectly just (see Deuteronomy 32:4, for example). That God does rope persons together Brauns shows clearly from Scripture. For instance, in the Flood (Genesis 7:9-19), not only wicked adults but whole families with children drowned. How could God do this? “The only answer that makes sense,” Brauns observes, “is that young children drowned in the flood because they were roped together with their parents and their culture” (29). This troubling reality Brauns further illustrates by referencing, to name a few examples, the certain death of children in Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19:23-29)(29-30); the punishment of all Egyptians, adults and children, for the obstinacy of Pharaoh (Exodus 7-14)(30); and the punishment of all Israel for the secret sin of Achan, who hid rather than destroy some valuable items from the siege of Jericho (Joshua 7)(31).

Not every biblical example Brauns adduces is ideal. One, at least, would be better omitted. The wives and children of Daniel’s accusers were executed at the orders of a pagan king, not by God’s instructions (Daniel 6)(31), so the roping of these families together is no more necessarily indicative of justice than the roping together of students in the schoolyard example. A more rigorous distinction between ropings clearly validated by God’s own actions and ropings potentially expressing human injustice (humans taking on divine prerogatives to rope together whom they please) might somewhat improve the chapter. Were this rigor extended to the entire text, the book as a whole might be even better than it is already.

Nevertheless, Brauns adduces so many examples that do show God roping persons together in his treatment of them, that do show God choosing to deny individuals the right to be judged solely as individuals, that his basic argument cannot be gainsaid. Either one accepts the principle of the rope, at least in those instances where God himself affirms it, or one rejects Scripture’s authority.

Chapter two, “Original Rope” (39-50), discusses the doctrine of “original sin” as the ultimate negative example of the principle of the rope. God has roped all humans to Adam as their representative. “Broadly speaking,” as a result, “there are two consequences to Adam’s rebellion….[1] Adam and all his descendants are guilty of sinning against God, and…[2] all of Adam’s descendants inherit a corrupted nature” (45). After unpacking this basic idea, Brauns spends some time discussing realist and federalist (covenant) views of just how Adam’s sin could be transmitted to his descendants. Whereas the federalist/covenant view sees our roping to Adam as purely a matter of his being our representative, the realist view proposes that all Adam’s descendants were somehow “really present when Adam sinned,” as (it is alleged) Levi was really present when Abraham paid tithes to Melchizedek (Hebrews 7:4-10) (46-47). Though Brauns wants to make room for both views as revealing something true about our roping to Adam (48), I confess to being a solid federalist here and to finding the realist view a weird, spooky misapprehension of the full implications of being represented (roped) and so subject to imputation (assignment of guilt for Adam’s actions). Since Adam received a sinful, corrupted nature as the consequence of his (immediate) guilt, I see no problem identifying our sinful, corrupt natures as the consequence of our (imputed) guilt for the sin of our representative, Adam. (As a matter of detail, the imputation seems to apply to natural offspring of human fathers, thus showing the necessity of our Savior’s conception to a virgin mother.) That Levi paid tithes to Melchizedek in Abraham because he was metaphorically present as a descendant roped to Abraham as his representative is as clear to me as that the bread and wine of communion represent (are metaphorically) the body and blood of our Lord. If you believe in “the real presence” of Christ’s body and blood in the communion elements, you may find the realist approach to original sin appealing; I do not.

The how of our roping to Adam aside, the what of that ropings’ implications is apparent, and Brauns’ presentation of it is clear and persuasive. “The principle of the rope means,” he concludes, “that the decision that Adam made to rebel against God has left us in a desperate situation.” Specifically, “despite our best efforts and good intentions, we cannot change the reality of sin in this world or in our lives. Original sin is, indeed, bad news—the very worst sort of news” (50). (Though I’ve already mentioned that the justice of God’s ropings cannot be questioned by anyone claiming to recognize Scripture’s authority, I would note as an aside that complaining about being represented by Adam rather than facing the ultimate divine testing ourselves is like complaining about being represented at a swimming competition by Michael Phelps in his prime. Adam was a human creation so perfect as to merit God’s “very good” label; our divine-human Lord excepted, no human since Adam has been more well equipped to pass God’s test than Adam himself was. God roped us to the best among us.)

So much for the ultimate negative example of the principle of the rope. In chapters three and four, “The Rope That Is Stronger” (53-60) and “Bound to a New King” (63-71), Brauns shows how the reality that God’s justice permits roping of persons to their representatives is the best possible news. Brauns’ treatment, which unpacks the implications of Romans 5:12-21 then proceeds to unpack the meaning of union with Christ, is persuasive and solidly Reformed (citing the Westminster standards, John Calvin, and John Murray, for example). (Apparently, Brauns is Reformed Baptist, since he later mentions the importance of believer’s baptism [192]. No complaints here.) The conclusion of the chapter is that, “When confronted with the reality of evil, the death of innocent children and suffering that we cannot explain or even comprehend, the most important thing we can do in response is fly as quickly as possible to the good news of our union with Christ. We can acknowledge the reality of sin and evil…by pointing to the truth that we stand condemned, that we are under the curse, because of the rebellion of Adam. But the very reality that condemns us is also the basis of the good news that God graciously announces to us—that we can be cut off from Adam and united to Christ” (71).

In chapter five, “Can We Blame the Rope?” (75-87), Brauns seeks to refute those who, in the manner of (Brauns’ example) Hank Williams Jr., try to evade responsibility for their own sins by blaming them on the sins of others to whom they are roped, such as their parents. He finds scriptural refutation of such blame-shifting in Ezekiel 18. Brauns’ bottom line is that, even though the sinful decisions of others may have predisposed one to sin (as Adam’s rebellion has predisposed us all), this negative result of roping does not free one from responsibility for one’s own choices. These are “hard sayings,” no doubt, and Brauns seems aware that readers may struggle to accept that they remain fully responsible for their sins even when they find themselves in sin-favoring circumstances created by others without their knowledge or consent. Brauns makes a persuasive case that Ezekiel (and so God) teaches just this, however. The only resolution for the tension is in the availability of grace through repentance, in the reality that “sin is never inevitable” because “God is eager to extend grace in response to repentant hearts” (84). Yes, God’s justice is hard, not even giving a pass to those roped to the most sinful of forebears; thankfully, God’s grace is stronger than bad circumstances and the sinful rope-mates causing them.

Part two, “Applying the Principle of the Rope,” includes five chapters: “Bound Together for Joy” (93-106), “Bound Together in Marriage” (109-23), “A Red Rope for Hurting Families” (127-44), “A Rescue Rope for Those Facing Fear of Death” (147-59), and “Roped Together in Country and Culture” (163-182). “Bound Together for Joy” seeks to show that the roping together of believers in Christ’s body makes active engagement in a soundly biblical local church an indisputable prerequisite for joy. (The need to understand the gospel of grace and to regularly reiterate it to oneself is also highlighted.) One possible flaw is that Brauns does not give a biblical definition of “joy” until a few pages into the chapter (“not…glib happiness….[but] a deep and abiding pleasure in Christ that withstands the vicissitudes of life and that will one day give way to eternal joy in God’s presence”—96). Also, as seems common, Bound Together propounds the importance of becoming actively engaged in a soundly biblical church, yet fails to offer detailed description of what doctrines and practices merit a church’s identification as soundly biblical.

“Bound Together in Marriage” deals with the divinely ordained roping that is marriage. Notable aspects of this chapter include a discussion of the biblical roles of husband and wife that warms my complementarian heart but is certain to anger egalitarians and feminists (116-23) and vivid description of divorce as the equivalent of amputation (115-16). “A Red Rope for Hurting Families” points to the story of the deliverance of Rahab’s family during the destruction of Jericho (Joshua 2) as the source of hope for those whose decisions have so far harmed the families roped to them. To any who say, “I’ve already made so many mistakes in life. What I’ve done has way too many negative consequences for my family. It’s too late.” Brauns responds, “’Read the first six chapters of Joshua again.’ Do you not remember what Rahab did for a living? She was a whore. The Bible repeatedly reminds us of her history….Her lifestyle is included so we never forget that the story is all about the grace of God, who is quick to forgive those who turn and put their trust in him” (136-7). “A Rescue Rope for Those Facing Fear of Death” points to our being roped to Christ as reason to approach death without fear: “Death hurts. It is ugly. It stings. But we need not fear it. Our champion, the second Adam, the Lord Jesus Christ, has won the victory…[after taking] on flesh and blood so he might establish solidarity with [rope himself to] us” (158).

“Roped Together in Country and Culture” acts much more as a conclusion to the whole text than its title might suggest. While it does not summarize earlier chapters, some of what was implicit there becomes explicit here and Brauns’ “vision” of things comes into clearer focus. With apologies for “language borrowed from sociologists,” Brauns describes the chapter’s thesis as follows: “Only New Testament churches can offer the plausibility structures needed to legitimize solidarity and counter the radical individualism unraveling the fabric of Western culture” (164, emphasis removed). A welcome aspect of this chapter is that it endeavors to distinguish between malignant and benign individualism: the former Brauns labels “radical individualism”; the latter he at one point calls “biblical individualism.” Quotation of David Wells’ distinction between individualism-past and individualism-present is particularly helpful (170). Though one could always wish for even more perfect and precise terminology, Brauns’ treatment of this issue is a welcome corrective to the “all individualism is evil” rhetoric of some contemporary writing.

One aspect of the chapter requiring comment is Brauns’ use of the phrase “plausibility structures.” Setting aside the fact that Brauns’ use of such terminology runs against the pastoral mandate that prompted him to refer to corporate identity or solidarity (or interconnectedness or oneness, if you like) as “the principle of the rope,” the term “plausibility structure” shares an irksome quality common to much specialized language: it appears clearer than it is. Like much social scientific terminology that has found its way into church discourse, “plausibility structure” doesn’t mean what we of a more philosophical and theological background, or just of a common English usage background, might suppose. This is not a structure of thought, not an organization of ideas, not even (say) the set of unquestioned presuppositions that underlie all one’s thinking and so determine what one does or does not find plausible. Rather, this is a “social structure”; specifically, it is the community of persons who believe a certain way, who share certain convictions and presuppositions in common, within which one is embedded. “Belief culture,” you might (and I would prefer to) call it. That, at any rate, is the definition I derive from Brauns’ quotation and discussion of Peter Berger, with whom the “plausibility structure” terminology originates (172-3).

The idea is that (generally speaking; social science does not deal in absolutes) individuals can only find plausible beliefs that important persons in their community embrace (that is, persons important to the individual considering a belief, whether important because of high status in the community or because of personal ties to the individual). If you want to relate this to the presuppositional framework you might have been tempted to assume “plausibility structure” refers to, you could say that individuals’ presuppositional frameworks are largely determined by the “plausibility [social] structure” (belief culture) within which they live. Irritating though this opaque terminology might be to some of us, one can hardly doubt that persons’ social or cultural contexts influence the range of possible beliefs they will find plausible. (Terminological asides: [1] If memory serves, the branch of sociology within which the term “plausibility structure” originates is “sociology of knowledge,” which would better be called “sociology of belief.” [2] I believe that William James also made a point of distinguishing between potential beliefs that either are or are not “live options” for a given individual. An individual’s context can make certain beliefs “dead on arrival,” automatically implausible and so unlikely to be considered—if they are even understood.) Brauns’ deployment of the “plausibility structure” concept is to argue that “radical individualism” so pervades the dominant plausibility structures of contemporary America (and the West generally) as to make beliefs and practices at variance with radical individualism automatically implausible. Biblically sound churches, however, can (Brauns believes) provide an alternative context into which persons can be embedded, one where the plausibility structure (belief culture) permits thinking and believing “outside the box” of radical (malignant, unbiblical) individualism.

The book concludes with a sound presentation of the gospel and basis for assurance of salvation (Appendix One, 187-192) and some suggested readings (Appendix Two, 193-95).

This review has also been posted (in full, minus some formatting and links) to Amazon, (in abbreviated form) to Barnes & Noble, and possibly elsewhere.