Review of ‘The Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade’ by Philip Jenkins

The-Great-and-Holy-War Philip Jenkins, The Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade (New York: HarperOne, 2014). Hardcover / Kindle

The Great War (1914–1918) is a turning point in world history. It destroyed empires and created nations. It wrecked Christendom, catalyzed secularism, and unleashed global religious forces that continue to affect the world today. “Only now, after a century,” writes Philip Jenkins in The Great and Holy War, “are we beginning to understand just how utterly that war destroyed one religious world and created another.”

Many books have been published to mark the centennial of the start of World War I. Some narrate the history of the entire conflict; others study this or that aspect of it in depth. Jenkins’s book belongs to the latter category. It focuses on how European combatants framed the conflict using the holy war rhetoric of medieval Christendom. Nations used this rhetoric whether or not they had an established state church. Soldiers were viewed as martyrs. They claimed angelic and miraculous interventions on the battlefield. Among the heterodox, paranormal, occult experiences were common. Even radical social movements such as Soviet Communism, though they were avowedly godless, expressed their aspirations in apocalyptic and millenarian terms.

After surveying the religious dimension of the rhetoric and experience of the combatants, Jenkins then shows some of the global consequences that arose in the aftermath of war. The Great War was truly a world war in that the empires fought over their colonies and enlisted their colonized subjects to fight on European soil. As they enlisted this or that colonized group to fight for them, they unleashed forces such as Zionism, anticolonialism, Armenian genocide, African indigenous churches, and politicized Islam—forces that had sometimes explicit, sometimes implicit religious dimensions.

These forces continue to influence world events today. Consider the Israel-Gaza conflict. The British Mandate in Palestine came about because of the Entente Powers defeat of the Ottoman Empire, which until then had held sway in that region. The United Kingdom had promised Zionists that it would work to establish a national Jewish homeland in Palestine in 1917. But it also made promises to Arabs, and established Hashemite kingdoms in Transjordan and Iraq after the war. Facing Western dominance in their ancestral homelands, Arabs developed two contrary responses: a secularized Arab pan-nationalism and a politicized Islam. Secularism was the choice of many Arab Christians and other minorities, who longed for Arab statehood but did not want Muslim dominance. Politicized Islam, on the other hand, longed to reestablish the caliphate, the Muslim umma (peoplehood, empire), and sharia as the law of the land. In Palestine, the Palestinian Liberation Organization and Hamas represent these contrary responses.

Or consider the depredations of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which has been in the news of late for expelling Christians from their ancestral homelands. Until the Great War, the Middle East, though predominantly Muslim, contained substantial Christian minorities, groups that claimed direct links to the Apostolic Age and whose tenure in the land preceded the rise of Islam by centuries. This was especially the case in the region now known as Turkey, whose major cities were mentioned in the New Testament and which had been the Byzantine heartland in the 1100 years between Constantine and the fall of Constantinople. In 1915, fearing that the Entente Powers—who explicitly interpreted the Great War in terms of crusade and holy war—would destroy the caliphate and restore Christendom in Asia Minor, the Ottoman Turks began a genocide and expulsion of the Armenians, the Ottoman Empire’s largest Christian minority, as well as against Assyrian and Chalcedonian Christians. The genocide of the Armenians gave the Nazis hope that they likewise could murder the Jews with impunity. “Who, after all,” asked Adolph Hitler, “speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”

It is easy for a Christian to point out these problems, which involve politicized Islam. But Christian readers of The Great and Holy War need to take to heart the lesson it teaches us about how easily biblical images and rhetoric, as well as the images and rhetoric of Christian tradition, can be used to incite, support, and sustain brutal warfare that kills millions. “[I]t is God who has summoned us to this war,” proclaimed Randolph McKim of Washington DC’s Episcopal Church of the Epiphany as the United States entered the war in 1917. “It is his war we are fighting.… This conflict is indeed a crusade. The greatest in history—the holiest. It is in the profoundest and truest sense a Holy War…. Yes, it is Christ, the King of Righteousness, who calls us to grapple in deadly stifle with this unholy and blasphemous power [Germany].”

But just three years earlier, German Lutheran pastor Dietrich Vorwerk had reworked the Lord’s Prayer to say, in part, this: “Our Father, from the height of heaven, / Make haste to succor Thy German people. / Help us in the holy war…. In thy merciful patience, forgive / Each bullet and each blow / That misses the mark. / Lead us not into the temptation / Of letting our wrath be too gentle / In carrying out They divine judgment…. Thine is the kingdom, / The German land. / May we, through Thy mailed hand / Come to power and glory.”

Even granting, as Jenkins does, that the Entente Powers had more justice in their cause than the Central Powers had in theirs, the contrary rhetoric of the Christians on both sides of this conflict call into question whether God was truly on either side or whether each was simply using him to justify their nation’s actions. No wonder, in the aftermath of the war, Christendom died in Europe and secularism began to take its place. It had been killed by Christians.

For revealing the religious contours of a European (and American) religious world order now gone; for demonstrating that Christians—not just Muslims—have a history of politicizing their religion for violent purposes, even in recent times; and for showing how the religious world we inhabit is one birthed in the fires of the Great War, I highly recommend Philip Jenkins’s The Great and Holy War.

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Review of ‘In the Gap’ by Wilfredo De Jesús

InGap-Book Wilfredo De Jesús, In the Gap: What Happens When God’s People Stand Strong (Springfield, MO: Influence Resources, 2014). Paperback / Kindle (Also in Spanish: Paperback / Kindle)

Nearly eight months ago, my wife and I became foster parents to two sisters, who are 19- and 2-months old. The experience has been rewarding, of course, but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that it also has been hard. We used to be able to pack our son into the car and go on extended road trips. We don’t do that anymore. We used to be able to go out for date nights. That’s now a rare occurrence. We used to get a full night’s sleep. Now, we wake up two to three times a night to feed someone else’s baby.

“A gap,” Wilfredo De Jesús writes in his new book, “represents a place of weakness, vulnerability, and danger. It is a defenseless location of exposure and limitation, a point where people face real threats.” My foster daughters were “in the gap,” so to speak, when they came into our home. It fell to my wife and me to stand in the gap for them and become a source of strength, health, and safety for them.

Based on my personal experience, I read In the Gap with real interest. Pastor Choco—as De Jesus is known popularly—outlines the traits of “gap people,” drawing on the examples of biblical characters:

  • Nehemiah identified a problem to solve,
  • Esther understood her times,
  • Noah was “all in,” no matter what the cost,
  • David was anointed by God to do the work,
  • Barnabas saw hidden potential,
  • John the Baptist was willing to take risks,
  • Gideon was sensitive to the voice of God,
  • Deborah earned a reputation of wisdom and strength, and
  • Caleb had a “different spirit.”

As I read about these biblical characters, I realized that my feelings of inadequacy, loss of comfort and ease, and occasional desires to throw in the towel were not unique to me. If you stand “in the gap,” you put yourself in harm’s way, you make your life more difficult, and you experience crises of faith. But you also—and this is the most important thing—do what God wants you to do by trading your comfort for the wellbeing of others. Isn’t this what Jesus—the Ultimate Gap Man—meant when he said, “the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give my life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45)?

Please don’t misunderstand me. I don’t think my wife and I are heroes. I know us all too well—our struggles, doubts, and frustrations—to say anything so arrogant. Indeed, I ask myself why it took me so long (I’m 45 years old) to stand in the gap for little children whom Jesus loves and blesses.

Rather, I share my story in order to explain why I profited from reading this book. This book encouraged me to keep on doing whatever I can do to make my life a blessing for others, especially those in places of weakness, vulnerability, and danger. I hope, when you read this book, it will have the same effect on you.

In the Gap includes discussion questions at the end of each chapter, which can be used for personal reflection or group discussion. It has a self-evaluation tool at the back of the book to help you determine “where God is already at work in your life…and where He may need to do a little more to sharpen and shape you.” Finally, it includes useful suggestions for how to use the book in small groups and classes.

(Full disclosure: I know Pastor Choco personally, and I work for the Assemblies of God, which is the parent company of Influence Resources.)

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Review of ‘Immediate Obedience’ by Rod Loy

Immediate-Obedience Rod Loy, Immediate Obedience: The Adventure of Tuning in to God (Springfield, MO: Influence Resources, 2014). Paperback / Kindle

My son is five years old. Much of my parenting of him at the moment involves teaching impulse control. I tell him, “Just because you feel like yelling—or making rude noses or smacking your foster sister on the back of the head—doesn’t mean you have to do it.”

It is generally understood that impulse control refers to the suppression of negative impulses. That is well and good, of course, but not all our impulses are negative. Should we also teach our children to restrain positive impulses? Shouldn’t we rather teach them to act on positive impulses? Indeed, shouldn’t we act on good impulses ourselves—to forgive, to help, to share God’s love?

In his book, Pastor Rod Loy encourages readers to practice immediate obedience, which is “the courage to act instantly on whatever [God] told [you] to do.” Such obedience assumes, of course, that God speaks to us, through Scripture preeminently but also through other means. It also assumes that we are listening, not allowing disobedience, distraction, or doubt to close our ears to God.

When we listen to God speak and immediately obey His voice, He leads us on an adventure of increasing faith, service, and blessing. When we don’t, we miss out on God’s blessing, allow disobedience to creep into other areas of our lives, and experience regret about how God could’ve used us…if only we’d been willing. Clearly, immediate obedience is the better option.

The concluding chapter of the book shares good advice about how to start developing the habit of immediate obedience: give God your heart above all else, make decisions today that will allow you to say “yes” to God tomorrow, avoid debt or eliminate it if you have it, hold possessions loosely, start small, and never say no.

The book includes discussion questions at the end of each chapter, making it ideal for use in small groups. It also includes “The 90-Day Challenge” with a Bible reading, prayer guide, and reflection questions. The goal of the challenge is to help you “ask God to make you sensitive to His voice, and then, to obey whatever He asks you to do.” I found this book spiritually encourage and very practical. I plan to take the 90-Day Challenge.

(Full Disclosure: I am a friend of Pastor Rod Loy, and I work for the Assemblies of God, which is the parent company of Influence Resources.)

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Review of ‘Courageous Compassion: Confronting Social Injustice God’s Way’ by Beth Grant #UPDATE

Unknown Beth Grant, Courageous Compassion: Confronting Social Injustice God’s Way (Springfield, MO: My Healthy Church, 2014). Paperback / Kindle

Rape is a shattering experience for the victim—physically, psychologically, and spiritually. When rape is institutionalized through sexual trafficking, this shattering experience is renewed daily, and the wounds fester, slowly killing a woman’s body, soul, and spirit. Unfortunately, it is estimated that 800,000 to 4,000,000 women and children are trafficked across international borders annually, with as many as 18,500 coming into the United States alone.

In Courageous Compassion, Beth Grant issues a clarion call to Christians to combat the horrific evil of sexual trafficking. Grant is co-director of Project Rescue, a ministry to victims of sexual trafficking that began in a red-light district of Mumbai, India, in 1997. In 2013, Project Rescue provided care for over 32,000 women and children victimized by sexual trafficking in India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Moldova, Tajikistan, and Spain. She is also a member of the Faith Alliance Against Slavery and Trafficking and coeditor of Healing Hands, which is that organization’s training manual for caregivers to victims of sexual trafficking.

Courageous Compassion lays out a strategy for “confronting social injustice God’s way,” as the book’s subtitle puts it. “There is no value-free social response to human need and injustice,” Grant writes. “All human response to human need and injustice is inevitably influenced by the values and worldview of the person responding.” Consequently, “any initiative focused on the injustice of sexual slavery and the restoration of victims developed by a Christian organization or mission should reflect the person and message of Jesus Christ.”

For Grant, confronting the social injustice of sexual trafficking requires more than political efforts to legally abolish such slavery, as valuable as they are. Rather, Project Rescue aims to intervene in the lives of women who have been trafficked, restore them holistically (physically, psychologically, spiritually), and prevent their children from being exploited in turn. This strategy utilizes, prayer, evangelism, discipleship, medical care, job training, and cooperation with local churches to accomplish those ends.

Among some American Pentecostals—Grant is an ordained Assemblies of God minister—compassion ministries that seek to rectify the problems of social injustice are viewed with suspicion, as examples of a liberal “social gospel” that replaces evangelism and discipleship with political activism. Courageous Compassion allays those suspicions—and does so entirely—by presenting a holistic Pentecostal approach.

Who should read it Courageous Compassion? Christians interested in issues of social justice. Pastors whose churches send short-term missions teams to countries to work on compassion projects. Missionaries—both current and prospective—who need to see what holistic ministry looks like. And scholars who work at the intersection of theology, the Church’s mission, and social issues.

I cannot recommend this book highly enough.

(Full disclosure: I am a friend of Beth Grant, and I work for the Assemblies of God, which is the parent company of My Healthy Church.)

P.S. If you found my review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my review page. Then buy the book! The Kindle version is available for download right now at the bargain price of 99 cents.

Review of ‘Getting the Reformation Wrong’ by James R. Payton Jr.

Getting-the-Reformation-Wrong James R. Payton Jr., Getting the Reformation Wrong: Correcting Some Misunderstandings (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic 2010). Paperback / Kindle

Every now and then, I hear friends describe—denounce, really—some book as a work of “revisionist history.” What they mean by that appellation is that the book contains a false account of the past. And while they may or may not be correct in their evaluation, what strikes me is their misunderstanding of the historical task. By nature, all historical writing is revisionist. That is, the task of historians is to revise our present understanding of the past through better methodologies and more accurate information. They don’t always succeed in doing so, but they (should) always try. Absent their efforts, we run the risk of misremembering the past and acting in the present on the basis of misleading, if not false, history.

In Getting the Reformation Wrong, James R. Payton Jr. engages in a revisionist history of the 16th-century Reformation in order to correct popular misunderstandings of that seminal movement, especially among North American evangelicals. Successive chapters deal with the following misunderstandings:

  • The Reformation did not originate de novo in the 16th century (chapter 1). Rather, the events of the 16th century built on the desire felt throughout Western Christendom in the preceding two centuries for reformatio in capite et membris—Latin for head-to-toe reformation. The reformers may have capitalized on this long-felt desire, but they did not create it.
  • The Renaissance and Reformation were not competing movements (chapter 2). Instead, they were complementary movements. Indeed, with the notable exception of Luther, most of the first generation of Protestant reformers were “humanists,” that is, advocates of a liberal arts education as opposed to a medieval scholastic education.
  • The Reformation did not emerge rapidly or smoothly (chapter 3). Rather, in the early years, different people were attracted to Luther for different reasons, not all of them having to do with justification by faith. For example, the Peasant Revolt drew inspiration from themes in Luther’s writings, even though Luther himself specifically—and forcefully—condemned the revolt.
  • The Reformers did not agree with one another (chapter 4). Indeed, their disputes were sometimes rancorous and led to longstanding rifts within the movement.
  • The Reformers did not dispute the importance of good works in the life of the Christian (chapter 5). They agreed that we are justified by faith alone (sola fide), but they also agreed that the faith by which we are justified is not alone. It produces good works.
  • Similarly, the Reformers did not think that the Christian life could dispense with church tradition (chapter 6). They believed in Scripture alone (sola fide) as the final, unquestioned authority in the life of the church. But they also believed that tradition (e.g., creeds, councils, confessions, etc.) could play a subordinate role.
  • Regarding the so-called “radical reformation,” Payton shows that 16th-century Anabaptists were not predecessors of Baptists, incorporated a broader range of groups than modern-day Anabaptists, and originated in multiple places, not just in Switzerland (chapter 7).
  • The Counter Reformation was not merely a response to the Protestant Reformation (chapter 8). Rather, based on a centuries-old desire for head-to-toe reformation, various Catholic reform movements spread up before, along with, and outside of the Protestant Reformation.
  • Late-16th- and early-17th-century Protestant scholasticism was not necessarily a natural outgrowth of the earlier Reformation (chapter 9). Rather, it represented a significant shift in methodology and emphasis.
  • The Reformation was not an unalloyed success, at least not according to the Reformers’ own stated goals (chapter 10).
  • Similarly, if we pay attention to the teaching of the Reformers, then we cannot see the Reformation as a theological norm or “golden age” (chapter 11).

This bullet-pointed summary of Getting the Reformation Wrong doesn’t do justice to Payton’s nuanced argumentation, though it alerts you to the topics he addresses. The book is gracefully written, fair-minded, and insightful on a range of topics. I was especially impressed by the chapters on the events preceding the Reformation (chapter 1) and on the Catholic movements for reformation (chapter 8). The desire for reformatio in capite et membris was both widespread and ecumenical.

Payton’s final chapter asks whether the Reformation was a triumph or a tragedy, and concludes that it was both. Triumph: “it rediscovered and boldly proclaimed the apostolic message, the Christian gospel.” Tragedy: “divisions among the Protestant Reformers have mushroomed among their descendants in contravention of the explicit words of Jesus Christ himself” (i.e., in John 17:20–21). “It is at least a horrendous anomaly,” Payton writes, “that the sixteenth-century Reformation got rid of the clutter that obscured the foundation of the Christian faith, only to have Protestants cover that foundation again with the clutter of our manifold divisions.”

To which this Protestant can only say: “Lord, have mercy!” And also, thank God for revisionist historians who bring such problems to light!

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Review of ‘The Gospel in the Marketplace of Ideas’ by Paul Copan and Kenneth D. Litwak

The-Gospe-in-the-Marketplace Paul Copan and Kenneth D. Litwak, The Gospel in the Marketplace of Ideas: Paul’s Mars Hill Experience for Our Pluralistic World (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2014). Paperback / Kindle 

Among American evangelicals, it is a truism to say that America is fast becoming a post-Christian nation. The nation’s increasing diversity combined with the rapid rise of religious “nones” have resulted in a very different religious landscape than the one depicted in Will Herberg’s mid-20th-century classic, Protestant—Catholic—Jew, where those three religious constituted Americans’ religious choices. This new landscape requires evangelical Christians to adopt new methods in their evangelistic mission to the current generation.

Why? Because many of our methods assume that the people we are talking to agree with us on basic assumptions about the authority of the Bible, the nature of God, the necessity of atonement, and the reasonableness of faith. For much of American history, evangelism thus consisted of calling nominal Christians to practice a more authentic faith. In our increasingly non-Christian and post-Christian nation, however, it is unsafe to make any of those assumptions.

In their new book, The Gospel in the Marketplace of Ideas, Paul Copan and Kenneth D. Litwak examine Paul’s Mars Hill sermon (Acts 17:16–34) to see what insights the Bible itself supplies to evangelical Christians who wish to proclaim the eternal gospel in temporally relevant manner. Among Paul’s evangelistic sermon in Acts, the Mars Hill sermon best approximates our own cultural situation. Athens was a pre-Christian, pluralistic culture, whose religious and philosophical assumptions and practices differed dramatically from Paul’s. And yet, Paul found a way to speak meaningfully to the Athenians, affirming what he could in their culture, while providing a critique of those beliefs and practices that kept them from seeing their need for faith in Jesus Christ.

This dual-movement of Jesus-centered affirmation and critique will have a different flavor in 21st-century America, of course. But the logic of the approach will be the same.

  • Distinguish between persons and beliefs.
  • Describe the unknown God.
  • Point to signals of transcendence.
  • See evangelism and apologetics as interrelated process.
  • Challenge contemporary idolatries/ideologies.
  • Above all, point to Jesus as the climax of history and the fulfillment of our highest ideals.

As we follow Paul’s Mars Hill evangelistic methodology, we will find that some of our listeners will sneer, just as some Athenians sneered at Paul. But some will believe. It is for them that we must “become all things to all people so that by all possible means [we] might save some” (1 Corinthians 9:22).

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Review of ‘Christ in Conflict’ by John Stott

Christ-in-Conflict John Stott, Christ in Conflict: Lessons from Jesus and His Controversies, rev. ed. (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2013). Paperback / Kindle 

What is evangelical Christianity?

Ask the average American, and they will probably answer with some variation on politicized religion of the right-wing variety. There is an element of truth to this. White evangelical Christians in America tend to be politically conservative, after all, voting for Republicans in large majorities. Then again, African American and Hispanic evangelicals, by contrast, tend to be economically liberal but socially conservative, voting for Democrats to a similar or greater extent. Worldwide, the politics of evangelicals are even more diverse.

There is an element of tragedy to the average American’s answer, then, for it reduces evangelical Christianity to a political stance that does not accurately describe it or capture its real essence. To discover that essence, one must define evangelicalism theologically, recognizing that right-leaning evangelicals (such as the late Charles Colson) and left-leaning evangelicals (such as Ron Sider) are more united by their theology than they are divided by their politics.

Even when one factors in theological differences among evangelicals—such as the Arminian/Calvinist debate, the cessationist/continuationist debate, and the complementarian/egalitarian debate—the underlying theological foundations of evangelical Christianity are still held in common. That is why, in the 18th-century transatlantic revivals, John Wesley and George Whitefield could view one another as friends and colleagues, despite their strong theological disputes. That is why today, the National Association of Evangelicals can encompass a wide spectrum of opinion on those issues and more. There is something more basic to and common in evangelical Christianity than those disputes.

What that basic, common theology underlying evangelical Christianity is can be gleaned from the pages of Christ in Conflict by John Stott. Stott, who died in 2011, first published this book in 1970 under the title, Christ the Controversialist. Langham Literature, which was founded by Stott and holds copyright to his books, has reissued this little work with a new title and a few editorial changes, principally, Americanizing the spelling, changing the Bible version used, and deleting some illustrations that had become dated.

Stott himself stated the “aim” of his book very clearly at the outset: “to argued that ‘evangelical’ Christianity is real Christianity—authentic, true, original and pure—and to show this from the teaching of Jesus Christ himself” (p. 15). To accomplish that aim, Stott turns to eight conflicts recorded in the Gospels that Jesus had with either the Sadducees or the Pharisees. We might state those controversies in the form of a question:

  • Is religion natural or supernatural?
  • Is theological authority found in tradition or Scripture?
  • Is the Bible an end or a means to an end?
  • Is salvation based on merit or mercy?
  • Is morality outward or inward?
  • Is worship a matter of the lips or of the heart?
  • Is it the Church’s responsibility to withdraw from the world to become involved in it?
  • And should our highest ambition be our own glory or God’s?

In each case, Stott aligns evangelical Christianity with the second option. What, then, is evangelical Christianity? It is a supernatural, biblically grounded, Jesus-focused, merciful, heart-changing, authentic, socially engaged, and humble form of religion. Or rather, that’s what it should be. To the extent that it is not, it has departed from the teaching and example of Jesus Christ.

On the whole, I found Stott’s treatment of these controversies both enlightening and persuasive. Stott was a moderately Calvinistic Anglican priest. I am a thoroughly Arminian Pentecostal minister. And yet, I see how both his form of Anglicanism and my Pentecostalism agree wholeheartedly on these more basic matters. There are a number of theological nuances to these matters that I would have liked Stott to embrace, not to mention a few interpretations of Jesus’ Jewish interlocutors that I think need to more carefully qualified. Regardless, his Anglicanism and my Pentecostalism are clearly siblings in the same religious family, a family into which all of us have been adopted by God.

Although 40+-years-old, Christ in Conflict can help American evangelicals today—besmirched and begrimed by politics as we are—uncover again our basic theological assumptions. Doing so will have several salutary effects: It can help us refocus us on the mission Christ gave us to make disciples of all nations. It can help unify us across denominational and even national boundaries. And it can remind us that we unites us in Christ as evangelicals is greater, more important, and more foundational than what divides us in Washington DC.

What unites us is nothing less than the gospel—in Greek, euangelion—that gives us evangelicals our name.

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