What is an Evangelical?

The furor around Hillbilly Elegy has largely died away. Much to nearly everyone’s surprise, a populist won the election. Many of his votes came from people who claim the title evangelical.

The exit poll results that indicate 81% of so-called evangelicals voted for Trump have been used as a cudgel against theologically conservative Protestants, many of whom identify as evangelical.

As Robert Wuthnow notes in his recent book, Inventing American Religion, however, there are significant differences between theological belief and political identity. The pollsters have tried to cross that boundary, but there are indications that the political label evangelical may not provide a strong theological indicator.

In J. D. Vance’s book, Hillbilly Elegy, he demonstrates why using the term "evangelical" as if it means deep conviction and meaningful participation in a certain brand of Protestant religion is faulty:

Despite its reputation, Appalachia—especially northern Alabama and Georgia to southern Ohio—has far lower church attendance than the Midwest, parts of the Mountain West, and much of the space between Michigan and Montana. Oddly enough, we think we attend church more than we actually do. In a recent Gallup poll, Southerners and Midwesterners reported the highest rates of church attendance in the country. Yet actual church attendance is much lower in the South.

This pattern of deception has to do with the cultural pressure. In southwestern Ohio, where I was born, both the Cincinnati and Dayton metropolitan regions have very low rates of church attendance, about the same as ultra-liberal San Francisco. No one I know in San Francisco would feel ashamed to admit that they don’t go to church. (In fact, some of them might feel ashamed to admit that they do.) Ohio is the polar opposite. Even as a kid, I’d lie when people asked if I attended church regularly. According to Gallup, I wasn’t alone in feeling that pressure. (Hillbilly Elegy, J. D. Vance, 93)

This is one of the reasons Russell Moore, the president of the Southern Baptist’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, penned his February 2016 Washington Post article arguing this election made him hate the term evangelical.

He notes:

The word “evangelical” has become almost meaningless this year, and in many ways the word itself is at the moment subverting the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Part of the problem is that more secular people have for a long time misunderstood the meaning of “evangelical,” seeing us almost exclusively in terms of election-year voting blocs or our most buffoonish television personalities. That’s especially true when media don’t distinguish in election exit polls between churchgoers and those who merely self-identify as “born again” or “evangelical.”

Many of those who tell pollsters they are “evangelical” may well be drunk right now, and haven’t been into a church since someone invited them to Vacation Bible School sometime back when Seinfeld was in first-run episodes.
Used by CC license: http://ow.ly/8G0x30aM4e7

Used by CC license: http://ow.ly/8G0x30aM4e7

Despite the consistently demonstrable unreliability of the label as any serious indicator of religious belief, the word continues to be used without definition and qualification. Careful readers and writers should be aware of this.

Much as when using any term, we must be discerning when we interpret information and express it so that we clearly understand or communicate those who we are speaking to.

Those of who are legitimate Gospel Christians should not stop when someone says they belong to a church or regularly attend. We should seek to know their conversion story and if they don’t have one to help them get one.

It may also be time for us to look for another way to describe ourselves. Since evangelical has become associated with political bloc voting, perhaps we need another term.

At the very least, we need to be careful when we communicate to define our terms. We should also be careful not to allow a bare profession of belief made once upon a time to substitute for authentic, action-inspiring faith.

The Value of Empathy in the Workplace

I’m amazed how many years it took me to become aware of it. Even as a leader, I didn’t recognize the nature and significance of the difficulties in the daily lives of other people at work. Fifteen years into my working career and I think I’m finally starting to figure out what empathy is and why it matters.

I now work for a Christian organization with fewer than a thousand employees. Because we are a distinctively Christian community, our Human Resources department, when requested, shares prayer needs with all the employees through email. I’m amazed because nearly every week we are notified that someone’s family member is seriously ill or dying. These are major life events that sap people’s creative energies, distract from their work, and could even give them a sense of hopelessness.

Even more significantly, I am becoming increasingly aware as I get older of the profound struggles in the lives of many co-workers. When I was younger I assumed everything was alright unless someone told me otherwise. However, as I work in a community of Christians, I find out that apart from the big events that get broadcast through e-mail, there are dozens more “little” crises in people’s lives. For the most part, I was oblivious to these concerns when I worked outside of Christian higher education.

Some people are struggling with anxiety, some with the effects of ongoing cancer treatment, some with children that seem intent on getting into trouble at school. That stress sends ripples through a person’s whole life, including their work. There are a million of needs and struggles. If we’re not careful, we’ll miss them and never take the opportunity to be an encouragement to the people around us.

In organizations with a mission built upon Christian principles, it is easier (sometimes) to stop and pray and to use Scripture to encourage one another. It is also more likely, based on my experience, for people to be willing to discuss their struggles with others at work. However, looking back to the years that I worked in secular environments, I can think of a number of opportunities that I missed to be a better leader and a better friend. In reality, taking a few steps to be more empathetic would have made a big difference in my ability to exemplify the gospel to my coworkers.

Be Aware of the Hurting

The most significant step in becoming a better coworker is to simply be aware of the struggles in people’s lives. This starts by recognizing the humanity of the people that we work with.

Even theologians with a solid understanding of the doctrine of humanity need to be intentional to see the uniqueness of each person at work. My coworker isn’t just a line item on my budget with a productivity quota, she is a human with a family, medical needs, and hopes for the future. If I focus on whether she’s accomplished the proper number of tasks on the to-do list instead of whether she’s flourishing as a human, I’ve missed the mark as a leader.

There were many instances I can recall when I was very critical of peers who didn’t make deadlines or weren’t as successful at their work. I had a critical spirit that exalted myself because I stayed at work late or achieved a better result. Looking back, based on conversations I had at the time, many of those people were struggling with concerns at home with their families. It wasn’t that they didn’t want to do well at their work, it was simply that their work wasn’t as important as the other issues they were wrestling with.

I would have been more Christ-like had I been consistently concerned for their wellbeing as a person. Being effective at work is important, but it isn’t the only thing. It also may have helped people to be more productive had they known that others at work cared and were concerned about more than just the bottom line.

Be Compassionate Toward the Hurting

Simply recognizing that the world around is hurting is insufficient. It’s roughly the equivalent of telling the hungry, poorly clothed person and telling them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled.” (James 2:16).

US Government work used by CC License: http://ow.ly/bJWK309wYOv

US Government work used by CC License: http://ow.ly/bJWK309wYOv

In the workplace, most often the problem will not be a lack of food or clothing. The contemporary equivalent of brushing off physical needs is to address someone’s medical condition or concerns for their family by saying, “I’m sorry about that. Do you think you can get this report done on time?”

Obviously, sometimes there is work that just needs to get done. However, it may be that sharing another person’s assignment or covering a shift for them is exactly the sort of relief they need. Going beyond acknowledgment that someone has a problem and seeking to relieve it is a step in the right direction. Even if they don’t accept the offer, the willingness to help means more than simply offering your “thoughts and prayers” and “oohing” at the right moments in conversation.

Be Concerned with the Flourishing of Others

There are many people more aware and compassionate that I am. Many of them are not Christians. This is something that I’ve come to expect because common grace is real and, frankly, I’m naturally a selfish person.

However, as a Christian, I bring a vision of holistic flourishing to my workplace that others will lack. If I can beat down my introversion and task-oriented, deadline-focused nature, I can actually apply the knowledge of the good news about a savior who came to redeem and restore all of creation for the good of humankind and for his own glory. There’s a deeper message of hope and wellbeing in the gospel that only Christians can share.

We know the end of the story. We know that creation is groaning with birth pangs in anticipation of being set free from the bondage of sin and decay. (cf. Rom 8:18-23) We have a hope that should enliven us and cause us to desire to meet the needs of those we work in their daily struggles, pointing them toward redemption in Christ.


 Our workplaces are awash with a flood of private distress. As we do our work, we can serve others by doing our jobs excellently. We can also serve those we work with by demonstrating empathy for their concerns. Christians ought to pursue the good of people, not simply the metric that bolsters the bottom line.

As we move from simply recognizing the needs of others to offering to provide help, we open up opportunities for demonstrating what redemption looks like. Many people are carrying the weight of heavy burdens today. They need to know what redemption looks like more than they need a lesson in productivity. Christians can provide that, which is a key part of how we live out our faith through our work.

We Need the Substitutionary Atonement

Not too long ago someone told me in an off-hand manner that the Conservative Resurgence of the Southern Baptist Convention should have never happened.

The Cross by Michael Craven. Used by CC License. http://ow.ly/RDIe30aJ2tm

The Cross by Michael Craven. Used by CC License. http://ow.ly/RDIe30aJ2tm

I tend to agree, but for different reasons. I’ve heard the Conservative Resurgence objected to based on it being divisive. Inasmuch as it was divisive (and for some it certainly was just a power play), it is a shame that the split happened.

However, most of the people I’ve heard object to the Conservative Resurgence do so because they don’t think that the doctrines in question were worth dividing over. Typically, these are individuals who are sympathetic with revising gender roles in the church and who want to undermine belief in the reliability of Scripture.

Those two issues were certainly the most discussed issues during the controversy in the SBC, which has become known as the Conservative Resurgence. In reality, though, they were simply the tip of the iceberg for a deeper theological debate. There were legitimate heresies that were being tolerated in the seminaries and churches of the SBC and the denomination needed to be called back to doctrinal faithfulness.

One of the major outcomes of the Conservative Resurgence was the formation of another association of Baptist churches. The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (CBF) formed to support those churches who disagreed with the SBC on key doctrinal disputes. The CBF became a home for theological liberals and moderates.

The moderates were those who were willing to tolerate the erosion of traditional Christian doctrines, as long as they didn’t go too far. At least, that was the general idea. In truth, many moderates ended up tolerating outright theological liberalism, which eats at orthodoxy and the essentials of Christianity like a canker.

A Recent Example

A case in point is a recent opinion article by a Kentucky-based CBF pastor, who is a regular contributor to Baptist News Global, a partner organization to the CBF. The author, Chuck Queen, argues against the substitutionary atonement:

Popular Baptist preachers and evangelists over the years have emphasized trust in Jesus’ substitutionary death as essential for salvation. It is such a staple in many Baptist churches that pastors, even though they don’t believe it themselves, refuse to touch it.

He goes on:

Many Christians believe this to be the gospel truth. To deny this truth is to deny Christ. But this theory of the redemptive significance of Jesus’ death is seriously flawed. The major problem with substitutionary atonement is the way it imagines God. This interpretation of Jesus’ death makes God the source of redemptive violence. God required/demanded a violent death for atonement to be made. God required the death of an innocent victim in order to satisfy God’s offended sense of honor or pay off a penalty that God imposed. What kind of justice or God is this? Would a loving parent make forgiveness for the child conditioned upon a violent act?

His argument against the substitutionary atonement is actually a portion of a known heresy called Socinianism. It has huge theological and Christological problems. Sam Storms has helpfully posted a summary of this doctrine previously, in which he notes that the Socinian rejection of the substitutionary atonement requires a rejection of the essential justice of God. That is, Socinians must reject the idea that God must be just; instead he can simply ignore sin. Here is Socinus in his own words:

“If we could but get rid of this justice, even if we had no other proof, that fiction of Christ’s satisfaction would be thoroughly exposed, and would vanish” (De Servatore, III, i).
“There is no such justice in God as requires absolutely and inexorably that sin be punished, and such as God himself cannot repudiate. There is, indeed, a perpetual and constant justice in God; but this is nothing but his moral equity and rectitude, by virtue of which there is no depravity or iniquity in any of his works. . . . Hence, they greatly err who, deceived by the popular use of the word justice, suppose that justice in this sense is a perpetual quality in God, and affirm that it is infinite. . . . Hence it might with much greater truth be affirmed that that compassion which stands opposed to justice is the appropriate characteristic of God” (Praelectiones Theologicae, Caput xvi; Bibliotheca Fratrum Polonorum, I, 566).

The Problem of Justice

The CBF pastor contends that God does not have to be consistent in his justice in order to be just. He argues,

If God is sovereign, as advocates of substitutionary atonement contend, then God is the source of all justice. God is not subject to some sort of cosmic principle of justice outside of God’s own nature. If God chooses to simply forgive sin the way a loving parent would forgive sin, without requiring some sort of pay off or sacrifice, there is no one to tell God that God is violating the demands of justice. God sets the standards of justice.

This sounds good to some, but what Queen has essentially done is simply picked one of the two wrong choices in the Euthyphro Dilemma. He is right to note that moral justice is not an absolute imposed on God, but he is 100% wrong to assert that God simply makes up what is just. This is a huge theological problem.

If God can simply change the rules at any point, then your sin today could be tomorrow’s self-sacrifice. There are many within the ranks of the sexual revolution that hope this is true: they hope that earlier condemnations of sexual immorality have been revised by God to say that more sex is good as long as it is “loving.” Or, they might hope that despite the clear prohibition of killing innocents as a private individual in the Ten Commandments, it is now a good thing to commit an abortion. This would be convenient.

The proper answer to the Euthyphro Dilemma is “none of the above.” God isn’t bound by a moral law that existed prior to him. Neither can the moral law—and the just application of that law—change. Instead, the moral law is a reflection of God’s character. There is a reason that many times during the giving of the law, God commands the Israelites, “Be holy as I am holy.” (e.g., Leviticus 11:44) Since God does not change (cf. James 1:17), the moral law that reflects his character does not change.

But apart from the logical problems that Queen faces in trying to create a God that changes, he has many scriptural problems. The most obvious is Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians 15:3-5:

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.

In contrast, let us compare Queen’s comments:

Jesus didn’t have to die in order to make atonement to God for sin.


Jesus didn’t die because God needed a sacrifice. Jesus died because the powers that be had him killed.

Paul claims that the atonement is of first importance. Queen claims that the real issues is that “the sacrificial images employed by Paul and other New Testament writers carry a lot of baggage.”

This should not be overlooked. Queen is arguing that Paul got the core of Christianity wrong and that he has misled the vast majority of Christians since his time. 

In other words, what Queen is saying is that Scripture is wrong. He is also saying that orthodox Christianity for millennia have been wrong.  And they are wrong not about something that resides on the edge of Christian conviction, but the very heart of the message of Christianity.

Queen is arguing that the definition of the gospel—that Christ died for our sins—is wrong.

This is why I am thankful for the Conservative Resurgence. We may spend time fighting about politics, but at least we can all agree on the gospel. As for Queen, we should pray that he repents and places his faith in Christ for the propitiation of his sins. I'm not sure what he places his hope in otherwise.

No Legitimate Support is Offered

The strongest part of Queen’s defense is that he has struck first and anticipated the logical response of orthodox Christians. He anticipates that those of us foolish enough to accept Scripture and traditional Christian doctrines will argue that the atonement that is at the center of the gospel is at the center of the gospel. By anticipating the argument, he is inoculating some of his readers against the response. But careful readers won’t fall for his trap.

Queen never explains why his capricious, ever changing god is consistent with the God of the Bible. Instead, he simply asserts that “the God of Jesus, however, does not need to be propitiated.”

He also inserts an ahistorical fact with no evidence that the so-called Constantinian shift pushed substitutionary language to the forefront of the Church’s discussions of God. This is a theory in search of support, which Queen can’t provide because it doesn’t exist.

The reason the Eucharist has been a part of the Church’s liturgy since the beginning is because it remembers the significance of Christ’s death on the cross. It isn’t just a nice way to remember a nice guy that died because of injustice. If that were the case, there are a lot of Christian martyrs we should remember with meals.

Similarly, baptism, when properly performed, recalls the significance of Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection.

It’s almost as if Jesus Christ himself and the authors of the New Testament anticipated the false gospel Queen and others like him present. In fact, they did.

Instead of making an argument, Queen makes some assertions based on a twisted, anemic idea of a false god that provides no justice. He makes no effort to deal with significant texts of Scripture, like the letter to the Hebrews, which makes it clear that “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” and that Christ is the sacrifice that enabled our sins to be forgiven. (Heb 9:15-28)


The cross is absolutely necessary for the forgiveness of our sins. If you lose the substitutionary atonement, you lose the gospel. There are certainly other aspects and significances of the atonement, but if we miss Christ’s sacrifice on our behalf, then we’ve missed a central truth of Christianity. I'm thankful for the SBC where, despite our warts, we aren't arguing about gospel basics.

As we celebrate Christ’s death on the cross, his burial, and his resurrection, ponder the truth of the substitutionary atonement. It is bloody and horrid. It’s meant to be. He took our place. We deserved that fate. However, it’s also joyful, because God used Christ’s sacrifice to make a way for our redemption.

Hallelujah, what a savior.

Getting Jesus Wrong - A Review

Getting Jesus Wrong: Giving Up Spiritual Vitamins and Checklist Christianity is a well-meant attempt to correct common but improper understandings of the nature of Christ. Matt Johnson is attempting to communicate to a young audience his own mistakes in understanding the gospel, which he characterizes as getting Jesus wrong.

He first tackles “life coach Jesus” which is the Christological model in which Jesus’ ethical demands take the form of the contemporary culture so that the gospel leads one to become a good husband, hard worker, etc. Often this version of Jesus results from sermons that emphasize steps to a better marriage and how to exceed for Christ in the workplace.

The next chapter critiques what Johnson calls “checklist Jesus.” This version of Christ sees the Christian life as an extensive to do list. Read your Bible, pray, attend church. According to Johnson, this version of Christianity leads people to believe that these basic activities are necessary to make God happy.

In Chapter Three, Johnson wrestles with “movement leader Jesus.” This is the sort of Christianity that values leaders that are trying to get bigger faster, often in the name of mission. Often churches in this version of Christianity rely on a strong leader to further their expansion.

The fourth chapter deals with a similar version of Christianity, which Johnson calls “visionary Jesus.” It’s not entirely clear what the difference between this category and the previous one is. Though he mentions no names, here he is clearly thinking of his former pastor, Mark Driscoll, and men like former pastor Perry Noble and Steven Furtick. Similarly, the prosperity preachers would generally fall in this category.

In the next chapter Johnson explains how following one of these several false versions of Christianity lead one to pride and eventually despair. His point here is valid. When the gospel is redefined or human effort in pleasing God over-emphasized, it can lead to a sense of pride in “my church” or “my denomination.” When leaders fail or churches fail to prosper, this can lead to disappointment leading to despair. Not surprisingly, this is part of Johnson’s own story that looms heavily over the entire volume.

Chapter Six begins a separate section of the book that Johnson entitles, “The Antidote to Pride and Despair.” In Chapter Six, Johnson outlines the problem with seeking justification through the law. In this chapter Johnson briefly references the three uses of the law (judge, bridle, and lamp), but camps out on the law as judge. He attempts to show that human efforts to live a holy life leads to spiritual deadness and pride.

In chapter seven, Johnson summarizes the gospel as Christ’s work on behalf that fulfills the law, since we are unable. He rightly emphasizes that forgiveness is freely available and that salvation is not a result of human works. However, the chapter on the gospel tends to emphasize a rebuttal of the law rather than a positive presentation of the glory of the gospel.

The final chapter presents Johnson’s vision of hope in Christ’s work. In this chapter Johnson spends as much time, however, talking about his own depression and struggles, which actually overshadow the entire book. His hope seems more like a vague sense of light than a glorious joy in the gospel.

Johnson should be commended for his efforts to debunk false gospels. For some, this may be exactly the message that needs to be received. If someone is tempted to believe a works-based salvation, then Johnson’s account of his spiritual journey may jostle them out of their beliefs.

The Christianity Johnson presents is anemic, however. He is so focused on debunking the versions of false gospel he journeyed through that he leaves out any implications of the gospel. In fact, one of the tragedies of this volume is that Johnson provides no mention of sanctification and, to some readers, gives the impression that the necessary human efforts toward sanctification are exactly the sort of false gospel that he is critiquing.

In fact, this volume seems to advocate a sort of antinomianism. Johnson is so concerned to present a gospel by grace alone through faith alone that he effectively demeans the very means of grace that facilitate the process of sanctification. This is a serious deficiency of this volume. The biblical gospel is one of salvation, followed by sanctification, followed by glorification. The gospel presented here is simply salvation, with apparent effort to minimize the importance of spiritual growth in life.

This is particularly apparent when Johnson avoids talking about the role of the law as a bridle and as a lamp. He is correct to note that the law condemns us because of our sin. At the same time, it also reveals God’s character and helps us understand what it means to try to be holy as God as holy, just as God commanded. The law also functions to restrain our sinful impulses by reminding us of God’s justice. Leaving out these aspects of the law impoverishes Johnson’s vision.

Johnson does not call out Driscoll or his former church, Mars Hill in Seattle, by name. However, this volume is marked heavily by Johnson’s experience as a lay elder in that church. It is clear that the well-known problems in Driscoll’s leadership and the subsequent collapse of the network of churches has scarred Johnson. He notes that while writing this volume he has been unemployed, undergoing marital difficulties, and, by the tone of the book, struggling with some form of a mid-life crisis. Johnson has a lot of the pieces of a good book here, but the effort is marred by his joyless tone throughout the book. I walked away from the volume feeling much like the Christian life is about enduring prison camp, where release is unlikely and hope is mainly for a painless death at the end leading to eventual resurrection. That’s a bleak vision and inconsistent with the hope we have in this life as a result of the gospel.

Note: I received a gratis copy of this volume with no expectation of a positive review.

Alive in Him - A Review

Ephesians is, perhaps, my favorite book of the New Testament. I’ve probably read it more often than any of Paul’s letters and I’ve tried to memorize it more than once. Ephesians is something like a brief summary of Christianity. It’s got the gospel, it’s got the central doctrines of Christianity, it has a lot of ethics spilled out in application of the theology it proclaims.

Alive in Him is a companion volume to Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. It is a tool that can enhance someone’s personal study of the important epistle. It functions well as an individual study, but would serve as a good guide to an individual study to the book of Ephesians.

This is not a verse by verse commentary, but Gloria Furman walks through the text in discernible chunks and in order. After her introduction, where she deals with some of the basic questions of provenance and relation to other books of the Bible, the book is divided into eight chapters.

Chapter One focuses on Ephesians 1:1-14. Here Furman digs into the gospel, which is the powerful theme of Paul’s entire letter. The second chapter outlines Paul’s prayer and God’s power evidenced through Christ. Chapter Three covers all of Ephesians 2, exploring our status as redeemed people, called to life and unity in Christ Jesus. Furman’s fourth chapter surveys Ephesians 3, where Paul lays out the difficult truth that the gospel is for all people regardless of nationality or background.

In Chapter Five, Furman follows Paul’s turn from doctrine to its application in ethics. She dives into Paul’s call for his readers to live in unity as one body of Christ. The sixth chapter closes out Ephesians 4 and hits the first half of Ephesians 5 with an inspiring call to be the new creation God made Christians to be. Furman deals with the so-called household codes in Chapter Seven. In the eighth chapter the reader is treated to Furman’s lively discussion of the armor of God.

This book is a prize for the church. Furman combines biblical consistency with fervent faith and engaging prose to draw the readers along and through a key text in the church. If you read this book without being interested, then the problem is not with the book.

Perhaps the chief strength of Alive in Him is that it points the reader beyond itself and to Scripture. In her introduction, Furman specifically calls her readers not to replace God’s word with her book. This is a volume that is designed to enhance a Christian’s study of Scripture, not distract from it.

Furman does an outstanding job at finding textual relationships between Ephesians and the rest of the canon. Her study of Ephesians is a small part of a larger biblical theology. This book points to the metanarrative of Scripture through Paul’s brief epistle.

The most enjoyable aspect of this book is that Furman so clearly delights in the text of Scripture and the God who is revealed by it. The secret to some of the most powerful teaching and writing is not someone’s grasp of original languages or their mastery of minutia, but the degree of interest of the teacher. Furman’s joy lights up this volume. It is refreshing and exciting for the reader.

Perhaps the greatest tragedy that could befall this book is that it be consigned to a ladies’ Bible study. If I ever preach through Ephesians I will reference this book. This deserves to be read and widely. It deserves to be on the shelves of pastors, deacons, and professors. This is an example of how to do Bible study well and how to love Christ more through doing rigorous study. May the church be blessed by this volume for years to come.

NOTE: I received a gratis copy of this volume with no expectation of a positive review.

Expect Great Things - A Review

Expect Great Things is a spiritual biography of Henry David Thoreau. It provides an in-depth exploration of the nuances of this celebrated individualistic naturalist. Kevin Dann does the dirty work of digging through Thoreau’s various writings, including his copious personal diaries and correspondence, and correlating those informal writings with his published works.

If Dann’s biography of Thoreau is taken seriously, the work that some have done to include Thoreau on the list of vaguely Christian environmentalists should be viewed skeptically. The image Dann presents is of a man who held both strong skepticism of Christian truth with credulous belief in some of the spiritualistic superstitions common in early America. Thoreau certain used language that resonated with Christianity in some of his writings, but his own beliefs were far afield from orthodoxy by any reasonable reading. Dann argues that Thoreau was fascinated with Christ but rejected Christianity. However, to love the man and hate his bride does not show much affection for the loved object.

In addition to presenting the meandering spirituality of Thoreau over the course of his life, Expect Great Things provides a window into the complex and often bizarre spiritual beliefs that were common in ante-bellum America. Dann surveys the rise in popularity of the Freemasons, with their uniquely American adaptations. He spends several pages covering the evolution of the Mormon cult, the various prophetic cults that arose in the early 19th century, and the perversions of Christianity that arose from the Millerites and other pseudo-Christian digressions.

Some of this supernaturalism apparently came from incomplete understanding of natural science. Just as pseudo-Christianity was common, so was pseudo-science. Meteor showers were described in periodicals as divine signs. Accounts of sea serpents were accepted as factual and often embellished. Final conclusions were published about natural phenomena based on partial observations. This led to supernatural explanations for natural events and misinformation about much that would be later clarified. According to Dann, Thoreau’s practice of careful observation was an improvement over many other naturalists of the day.

The structure of this book is weak. The story of Thoreau’s life meanders through chronologically. There are chapter breaks, but there is often little clear reason for the distinction in chapters. The volume has no introduction and thus the reader is left to try to figure out what Dann’s purpose is in writing the book; there is no clear thesis. The aimless wandering of the book may provide a suitable simile for the life of Henry David Thoreau, but that sort of literary experiment is more effective in essays than in book length biographies.

The concluding paragraphs transition with little warning from anecdotes of Thoreau to the moral that Dann appears to want to draw. Based on those few paragraphs, it appears that Thoreau’s life is supposed to reflect the good of radical individualism codified into law based on universally accepted facts that are epistemologically impossible. In short, this account (and perhaps the actual life of Thoreau) represents the impossible tension between the desire to express and the prohibition of contrary expression that we see in modern culture. As such, Dann may have uncovered the patron saint for some in our confused time, but what he highlights in the life of Thoreau provides little worth emulating for those committed to the possibility and importance of pursuing truth.

Despite its weaknesses in form, Expect Great Things has a place within contemporary discourse on Thoreau. Dann sets Thoreau in historical context quite well. He pushes against the idea of a Christian Thoreau and presents more thoroughly the Thoreau that many have seen in the pages of the man's work. Dann adds to the field of study by presenting a nuanced, robust, and realistic portrait of Thoreau's spiritualism. This is also an interesting look into the spiritual climate of the early nineteenth century. For individuals interested in a casual, entertaining read about Henry David Thoreau, this book may be a real treat. 

NOTE: I received a gratis copy of this volume with no expectation of a positive review.

J. C. Ryle as Model Churchman

I first encountered J. C. Ryle in a seminary course. It was David Jones’ basic ethics course. That class changed my trajectory for seminary and also introduced me to an outstanding author.

Ryle’s Holiness is one of the most overlooked Christian classics. It deserves to be continually in print, widely read, and often referenced. The book is a means of grace; the biography of the man who wrote it helps explain why.

Iaian Murray, co-founder of Banner of Truth Trust, has published a number of volumes on church history including several biographies. Every book of his that I’ve read has been well done. J. C. Ryle: Prepared to Stand Alone is no exception.

The volume contains thirteen chapters, which progress through Ryle’s life from childhood to the influence of his work after his death. Throughout his life, Ryle’s character is revealed in a way that helps explain the power behind his plainspoken writing.

Ryle was the son of a wealthy man and member of parliament who went bankrupt do to some bad decisions. The blessing of the bankruptcy was that it pushed J. C. Ryle into ministry to support himself. However, according to Murray, the elder Ryle’s debts were source of moral burden to the son, who tried to repay his father’s creditors, even on a meager salary.

The portrait of J. C. Ryle that emerges from these pages is one of a churchman. He was ordained into the Church of England and eventually rose through the ranks to become the first bishop of Liverpool.

However, Ryle’s rise was not due to politicking and compromise. In a time when liberalism was rampant within the Church of England and factions within the state church were attempting to reunite with Rome, Ryle vocally opposed both liberalism and ritualism.

In fact, Ryle was a conservative combatant in an era that, according to comments by Ryle, sounds much like our own day. In a collection of sermons, Home Truths, Ryle wrote:

“It is not Atheism I fear so much in the present times as Pantheism. It is not the system which says nothing is true, so much as the system which says everything is true. It is the system which is so liberal, that it dares not say anything is false. It is the system which is so charitable, that it will not allow everything to be true. It is the system which is so scrupulous about the feeling of others that we are never to say they are wrong … What is it but a bowing down before a great idol speciously called liberality? What is it all but a sacrificing of truth upon the altar of a caricature of charity? Beware of it if you believe the Bible.”

Ryle was a churchman in the best sense of the word. He took his pastoral responsibilities seriously, visiting many of the homes in his sprawling parish regularly. He preached to the people, not over their heads. He saw writing as an important part of his ministry, but not one that would allow him to forgo his local responsibilities.

As Ryle wrote in Charges and Addresses, he was leery of “a growing disposition throughout the land, among the clergy, to devote an exaggerated amount of attention to what I must call the public work of the ministry, and to give comparatively too little attention to pastoral visitation and personal dealing with individual souls.”

This meant that preaching was important and public polemics were important, but pastoral ministry was paramount to Ryle. There was no room for the celebrity pastor in Ryle’s worldview.

Part of Ryle’s story must include the death of those close to him. Ryle was single when he began his ministry, which, of course, makes getting married that much more difficult. He lost his first wife after a few years to a lingering illness and had to board his child elsewhere. He would remarry two more times, each time outliving his wives due to illness. Ryle’s life was one that witnessed to suffering and yet found the joy of the Lord within that experience. The power of his sermons and books was shaped by the pain in his life and the goodness of God through that pain.

Murray’s biography of Ryle is a worthwhile read. It synthesizes the bits of biography we have about Ryle and brings them to light for our contemporary era. Murray shows what made Ryle useful to God. While our calling may not be identical, and the circumstances may have changed, there is much in Murray’s portrait of Ryle that deserves attention and mirroring by current or future pastors.

Read Murray’s book. After you do that, read Ryle. It will be worth your time, without a doubt.

J.C. Ryle: Prepared to Stand Alone
By Iain H. Murray

Note: I received a gratis copy of this volume from the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.

The Radical Book For Kids - A Review

The Radical Book for Kids is one of those books that makes you exclaim, “I wish I’d had this when I was a kid.” In fact, I said this so many times while reading this book, I risked annoying my wife. Turns out, one of the endorsers had the same thought I did, but I didn’t notice that until I was half way through the book.

The simplest way to explain this volume is to compare it to a basic overview of Christianity presented in the format of the Dangerous Book for Boys (or girls). The closest equivalent to this book that was around when I was a kid would have been a Boy Scout Handbook.

This description, however, risks making this sound like a Christian knock off. That wouldn’t be fair to the author, Champ Thornton. He may have been inspired by the format, but this is a book that deserves to be considered on its own merits.

The Radical Book for Kids: Exploring the Roots and Shoots of Faith is filled with brilliant colors, attractive graphic design, and oodles of information. This is the sort of book that draws you into reading it, if just to admire the pictures.

There are no chapters or clear segments in the book, though there is an order and progression to it when reading it from cover to cover. It’s the sort of book meant for opening randomly on a Sunday afternoon.

When you open the book, you might find yourself reading a summary of the biblical story line, learning how to make a sling, or reading a biography of a great Christian. At another reading, you could discover the different systems of money used in the Bible, learn why manners matter, or getting introduced to the structure of a New Testament Epistle. At a different time, you might find yourself learning the Greek alphabet, exploring images of Christ in literature, or reading tips on how to memorize something.

Thornton combines biblical survey, typological teaching, hermeneutics, systematic theology, and church history into a coherent jumble of discipleship. He’s included a few jokes, some trivia, and occasional games with eternal truths that will really help kids understand more about the Christian faith.

The whole book pitches important topics at the right level for kids to understand. If I had to give an age range, I’d say 7-140 is about right. I am confident my first graders will enjoy this as much as my preteen.

This lively book will be a great gift for the kid who has been sitting through church, Sunday school, and AWANA for years, but still hasn’t gotten the big picture. That’s the greatest strength of this volume, it continually shows how the gospel holds everything together. Even though it is filled with a variety of information, it has one consistent theme.

Once you give this to your kids, expect to be peppered with random facts about Christianity. You may also be roped into playing “Dogs and Jackals” or making a ‘clay’ pot with them. You’ll probably have to make sure all the kids get a turn with it, too, though that will likely settle down in a few weeks.

If there is one critique of the book, it is that there are some pop culture references that may seem dated in 20 years. However, none of them are critical to the book, and at that point you’re considering the value for your grandkids.

So, buy the book, give it to a kid you know, and watch them enjoy exploring the depths of it. This really is an excellent volume that deserves a place in your home.

Note: I received a gratis copy of this volume from the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.

A New Biography of Eric Liddell - For the Glory

I read biographies because it puts me in contact with better men and women, most of whom have died and whose lives can be measured with more accuracy and finality than the living. This is a sanctifying process, since it humbles me to recognize my own weakness in comparison to the greatness of others.

When it comes to the recent biography of Eric Liddell, For the Glory, I have found a man whose sandals I am unworthy to untie.

Liddell has been immortalized in contemporary culture with the Oscar winning movie Chariots of Fire. That film tells the tale to Liddell’s relatively short running career which cultivated in his surprising world record and gold medal finish in the 1924 Olympic Games in Paris. Previously, when I thought of Liddell, I always heard the synthesizer playing the familiar theme and thought of giving up a chance at more gold medals to honor sabbatarian traditions. The movie ends with a brief, abrupt epilogue that indicates that the hero died in an internment camp in China during WWII.

Another picture emerges in other biographies I’ve encountered. The YWAM biography and other simplified biographies written by Christians paint a portrait of a saint, telling a powerful story for an audience looking for a Christian hero. Danny Akin has preached a sermon using the life of Eric Liddell as an extended illustration.

I expected these sorts of biographies to paint Liddell in a positive light as the protagonist in a compelling sports movie and as a great missionary who died for the cause.

When I picked up Duncan Hamilton’s recent biography, I was expecting a much less flattering picture. A missionary biography written by an apparent non-believer with no clear Christian sympathies printed by a secular publisher is bound to find all the dirt and put it out so everyone can see it. I expected to find private details with hints of suspicious activities at every turn. That, however, is not the case.

The portrait of Liddell that emerges from this volume is of a man whose serious, meticulous devotion to God was rewarded by such a degree of sanctification that he was able to risk his life for Christ without thinking twice. In fact, the man once pushed two wounded men in a wheelbarrow through the countryside filled with Japanese aggressors because they would have otherwise died. He faced harassment, theft, confiscation of his property, and separation from his wife with a good attitude for the sake of the cross. The picture Hamilton paints is one of a saint who did great things for the Lord with a gracious attitude and without neglecting the other good things in his life as a consequence.

The book is divided into three parts. Part One focuses on Liddell’s childhood through his Olympic victories. These chapters line up well with other biographies I’ve read and generally support the well-known story that has been seen on screen as Chariots of Fire. Part Two explores Liddell’s work as a missionary in China, including his courtship of his wife, his continued athletic efforts, and his focus on doing the work God called him to. An interesting wrinkle to the legend of Liddell is that he didn’t absolutely reject the possibility of running in another Olympics. His faith was not a call to asceticism. Rather, it was the British Olympic Committee that failed to engage a man who might have won the U.K. another gold. This section was largely new ground for me and very engaging. Part Three expands on Liddell’s life in the Japanese internment camp, about which much less has been known than about other parts of Liddell’s story. Hamilton conducted a host of interviews of other internees to expand the available information about a great hero of the faith.

What Hamilton has done here deserves notice. He took a Christian hero whose story has been told before and he made it better. Hamilton added to the field of missiology by writing a careful history of someone who has been celebrated widely. He did this without slipping into dismissiveness of Liddell’s convictions or snarky digressions about the foolishness of his faith. Hamilton should be praised for adding a critical work on Liddell that doesn’t fall into the too common trap of attacking the biography’s subject in order to add interest. There are no “daddy complex” narratives or secret abuse allegations. What the reader gets is honest history told exceptionally well.

Even if missionary biographies don’t keenly interest you, this book is worth your time. Hamilton writes so very well. His retelling of Liddell’s life story is detailed but lively, carefully crafted but not pedantic, honest but complimentary. In short, this is a great book that deserves to be read and widely.

Note: I received a gratis copy of this volume with no expectation of a positive review.