(IVP Books, 2017)
Todd Outcalt, a seasoned Methodist minister, approaches virtue through novel means. He recognizes some of our most common virtues as Christians in society are actually what is causing division within the church and in society. The seven “virtues” Outcalt hones in on are faith, love, family, power, success, goodness and generosity. In each chapter, he centers a virtue under the microscope, examining how that virtue has been misappropriated to malign the church. Outcalt then offers helpful tactics to re-approaching the virtue based on anecdotes, historical Christian figures, and the Bible.
My main critique for the book was the feeling that Outcalt wanted to expand the discussion in a few places, but avoided it. To that point, there is no conclusion chapter to put a neat bow on how he thinks the conversation should go, but rather a fleeting two-page epilogue saying that there should be a discussion. My second critique is that in his chapter on family, Outcalt broaches the subject of enduring practices of Sunday segregation, but ends it as abruptly as it began, dedicating a solitary paragraph to such a serious issue in the church today. That brief foray left me frustrated: either include a robust discussion or leave out the paragraph altogether. It incensed me because at another point in the chapter he lets us know the family of God forces us to stretch beyond the comfort of our own families.
The Seven Deadly Virtues was brimming with lived experiences that successfully brought richness to the concepts he wished to impart. He masterfully connected scripture, historical Christians, theologians, parables, and his own experiences that kept me engaged throughout.
In a helpful section of the chapter on faith, Outcalt carefully distinguishes faith and beliefs. Reducing faith to a set of beliefs is one of the deadly virtues. He suggests combating this by reminding readers that faith is based on a relationship with God, not a litmus test. Ultimately, “self righteousness doesn’t redeem us. Fear doesn’t lead to faith,” (25).
Outcalt’s chapter on goodness was the strongest. He sets readers up to show how often our goodness puts us in a place to look down upon those we are being good to. Often the mistake of people wanting to do good on mission trips is an offer of a handout instead of a hand-up. Instead, a grace-based relationship with others looks up to God and treats others as equals. He quotes a mentor as saying “We don’t stand or fall on our own goodness,” (115). The goodness we rely upon is God’s work through Jesus Christ on the cross. Reorienting one’s mind to this understanding should help us to avoid judging others and cause us to listen more.
The brilliance of this work lies in the discomfort it causes. Readers thinking about what a godly life may look like would assert that these virtues are the ones they have been striving for. Outcalt reminds readers that their motivation for pursuing these virtues is the key to understanding if the virtue is controlling them. If it is, how can they experience the grace-filled motivation of giving themselves away because of the love they have received? Outcalt warns that the solution is no quick fix, but will have long-lasting reward.
I recommend this book for anyone feeling comfortable in their mastery over the seven deadly sins or who feels like they have a grasp on these “virtues.” As Outcalt shows, being good can have even more damaging consequences than avoiding the bad, if we do not take time to check our motivations.
Rory Jones is a student at George W. Truett Theological Seminary and a co-editor at Words About God. He enjoys cooking with his wife, Elise, and playing board games.