Review of ’40 Days of Decrease’ by Alicia Britt Chole


40-days-of-decreaseAlice Britt Chole, 40 Days of Decrease: A Different Kind of Hunger, A Different Kind of Fast (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2016).

Sometimes, it takes a crisis to force us to think deeply about life, what matters most, what deserves our best efforts.

Alicia Britt Chole (pronounced SHOW-lee) opens her new book with a personal health scare. “A high fever, a few scans, multiple masses, possibly a lethal abcess…the specialists convened, conferred, counseled me to cancel all engagements and began cutting.” Doctors released her from the hospital eight days after surgery. One specialist said, point blank, “At this point, I give you a fifty-fifty chance that the organs will come back online.”

For a woman in the prime of life, with a thriving ministry, a loving husband, and a young family, this crisis wasn’t good news. Looking back, however, Chole wouldn’t trade it for the world. “Little did I know,” she writes, “that the pain was under assignment: it was making room in my life for another operation well beyond the reach of any surgeon’s scalpel.” The Divine Surgeon was operating on her soul.

Christians are rightly concerned with the state of their souls. “We all guard against sins of commission and we are vigilant toward sins of omission,” Chole writes. “But achievements—even in small doses—can make us vulnerable to sins of addition: adding niceties and luxuries to our list of basic needs, adding imaginations onto the strong back of vision, adding self-satisfaction to the purity of peace.”

40 Days of Decrease was written to help us fast such sins of addition in order to see the way of Jesus Christ more clearly. It is an exercise in decluttering the soul. Rather than fasting physical necessities or material luxuries, however, it leads readers in a fast of spiritual and emotional add-ons, such as stinginess, spectatorship, accumulation, revisionism, and escapism.

After a brief Prologue and Introduction, Chole devotes a brief chapter to each of the forty days of the fast. Each chapter contains a devotional based on Jesus’ life, a reflection question, a suggested fast for the day, a sidebar about Lent, a Scripture reading, and a blank page for journaling your thoughts. Chole recommends using the book with a group for better outcomes.

40 Days of Decrease was designed to be used during Lent, the traditional forty days of fasting leading up to Easter observed by Catholic, Orthodox, and some Protestant churches. As a Pentecostal, I don’t think Lent is obligatory. (Chole also is Pentecostal, and like me, an ordained minister of the Assemblies of God.) I do think, however, that concentrated periods of prayer and fasting are a good idea with ample biblical precedent. Jesus Christ himself observed a forty-day fast at the outset of His ministry (Luke 4:1–2), after all, and we are not better than Him.

Whether you use 40 Days of Decrease at Lent or some other time of year, it is nonetheless a book worth reading and an exercise in fasting worth making.

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P.S. This article first appeared at VitalMagazine.com.

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Review of ‘When Words Hurt’ by Warren D. Bullock


When_Words_Hurt_350_coverWarren D. Bullock, When Words Hurt: Helping Godly Leaders Respond Wisely to Criticism (Springfield, MO: Salubris Resources, 2016).

Ministers receive more than their fair share of unwarranted affirmation. When was the last time, for example, you launched a stinker from the pulpit but still got a “Good sermon, Pastor!” from one of your congregants on their way out the front door? We get praise we haven’t deserved.

By the same token, we get blame we haven’t deserved too. When was the last time a deacon chewed you out for an expenditure in the church budget, conveniently forgetting that they had voted in favor of it? Or a first-time visitor harrumphed at you because you didn’t immediately indicate agreement with their laundry list of “helpful suggestions” for improving the ministry of your church?

And then, of course, there are the times we received criticism the old fashioned way—by earning it. The neglected pastoral visit at a crucial time in a family’s life. The angry response when a soft word would’ve worked better. You get the idea.

Whether deserved or undeserved, criticism hurts. “Sticks and stones may break my bones,” the old saw goes, but we all know that the second half—“words will never hurt me”—is a lie. Words hurt. Sometimes, they hurt so much they leave permanent scars on our lives and our ministries.

We can’t avoid criticism, but we can choose to respond to it wisely. In his new book, When Words Hurt, Warren D. Bullock helps pastors figure out the right way to respond to criticism, whether it’s wholly undeserved or contains a kernel of truth. Drawing on decades of biblical reflection and pastoral ministry, he shows why grace must lie at the center of our response:

When we are criticized, the person who least deserves grace is the critic. And that is precisely the point. We offer what they don’t deserve in the same way God offers it to us. As grace has liberated us, so responses filled with grace will bring freedom and release to both the criticized and the criticizer.

A good insight from a grace-filled book!

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P.S. If you found my review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review page.

P.P.S. This review originally appeared at InfluenceMagazine.com.

Review of ‘Love Kindness’ by Barry H. Corey


lovekindness350Barry H. Corey, Love Kindness: Discover the Power of a Forgotten Christian Virtue (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale, 2016).

Few things set off heated arguments on my Facebook timeline like posts about politics. Never in my lifetime have disagreements among friends—well, Facebook “friends”—been so sharp, so heated, so personal, and so deep. Even the language used is extreme: People aren’t just upset, they’re outraged. They don’t just disagree with someone else’s beliefs, they destroy her arguments. They don’t think she’s a nice person in the other political party, they think she’s a fool who belongs to an evil organization. And the vast majority of my friends are Christians!

In Love Kindness, Barry H. Corey writes that Christians’ political aggressiveness is counterproductive. “Our increasingly shrill sounds in the public square are not strengthening our witness but weakening it.” He contrasts aggression (“firm center, hard edges”) with niceness (“squishy center, soft edges”), and concludes that neither should be our objective. Rather, with Micah 6:8 in mind, he urges us to “love kindness,” to combine “firm centers” and “soft edges.” We need, if I could paraphrase his point, both conviction and civility, both good principles and good manners.

Kindness is much more than manners, of course. It is a fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22). And it keeps company with other virtues, such as humility, hospitality, and authenticity. Christians who want to change the world might keep in mind that “God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance” (Romans 2:4). If we haven’t changed people’s minds, perhaps it’s because we haven’t followed God’s example. Through poignant storytelling, self-deprecating humor, and insightful biblical analysis, Corey points the way to a lifestyle of kindness.

In the final chapter, Corey outlines what loving kindness means in seven statements. He writes, “A firm center and soft edges means…”

  1. …we become more involved in the culturally unfamiliar.
  2. …we are creators of goodness and beauty.
  3. …we approach the growing opposition in our day by leading with humility.
  4. …we fear not when our grace is met with humility.
  5. …we remain even more deeply rooted in biblical faithfulness.
  6. …evangelism is at the heart of why we live this way.
  7. …we need to remember that Christ-centeredness means we will never be marginalized.

If you’re tired of reading (or writing) heated Facebook posts that don’t seem to change anyone’s minds, I encourage you to read Love Kindness. And then to do it.

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P.P.S. This review originally appeared at InfluenceMagazine.com.

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Review of ‘Fundamentals of New Testament Textual Criticism’ by Stanley E. Porter and Andrew W. Pitts


New_Testament_Textual_CriticismStanley E. Porter and Andrew W. Pitts, Fundamentals of New Testament Textual Criticism (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2015).

This review originally appeared at InfluenceMagazine.com.

Stanley Porter and Andrew Pitts describe their Fundamentals of New Testament Textual Criticism as a “distinctively midlevel textbook on New Testament textual criticism for interested and serious students and with recent scholarly discussion in pertinent areas in mind.” It is, in other words, a textbook for students in college and graduate school who are majoring in New Testament studies. Why, then, do I think pastors and other Christian thought leaders should read this book too?

To answer that, go back with me to 2003, when Dan Brown published The Da Vinci Code. Although the book is fiction, Brown prefaced it with these words: “All descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents, and secret rituals in this novel are accurate.” Unfortunately, many of Brown’s allegedly “accurate” claims—especially about the Bible, Christian theology, and church history—were simply wrong, sometimes at the most basic, factual level.

Regardless, those claims left an impression on readers. Understandably so! Many readers nodded their heads when Leigh Teabing, one of the book’s characters, said this about the Bible: “Man created it as a historical record of tumultuous times, and it has evolved through countless translations, additions, and revisions. History has never had a definitive version of the book.” In other words, powerful people monkeyed around with the text of the Bible in order to confer divine status on their preferred ideology.

Two years later, Bart D. Ehrman published Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why. Unlike Brown, who is a novelist, Ehrman is James A. Gray Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In Misquoting Jesus, Ehrman wrote, “There are more variations among our manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament.” And one of the reasons for that is what Ehrman elsewhere calls “the orthodox corruption of Scripture.” In other words, the orthodox altered the text of the New Testament in order to give themselves a “biblical” weapon to use against heretics.

Now, imagine that you are a well-meaning Christian and you read The Da Vinci Code. It raises questions about the accuracy of the New Testament text. Your pastors say it’s bunk, but then you read Misquoting Jesus, and you start to wonder whether they know what they’re talking about. And then you start to wonder whether the Bible itself is trustworthy.

Notice how quickly a fictional narrative can lead to a factual question with serious spiritual implications. Pastors who are unaware of the questions percolating in popular culture and unprepared to provide serious, well-thought-out answers to them are not serving members of their congregation well. At some level, then, pastors must know how to answer the kinds of questions raised by Dan Brown’s and Bart Ehrman’s statements.

Which brings me back to Fundamentals of New Testament Textual Criticism. In this book, Porter and Pitts provide readers with a nuts-and-bolts explanation of that discipline. They define the goal of textual criticism as the “reconstruction of the original the [New Testament] documents based upon the manuscript traditions currently available.” They then walk readers through major witnesses to the New Testament text and the various text-types that arose over the centuries. They define what a textual variant is and outline how external and internal evidence help decide what the original text most likely said. They then conclude with their discussion with several chapters on modern critical editions of the Greek New Testament, as well as translations of it into English.

With the exception of a brief (and to my mind, conclusive) refutation of Bart Ehrman’s orthodox-corruption-of-Scripture thesis, the tone of the book is introductory rather than apologetic. Nonetheless, their introduction of the discipline of textual criticism has apologetic implications. If we can recover the original text of the New Testament with reasonable confidence, then we can be reasonably confident that it has not been corrupted for political (Dan Brown’s point) or theological (Bart Ehrman’s point) purposes. In other words, when we read the New Testament, we have access to the worldview, beliefs, and practices of Jesus’ earliest disciples. I would further argue that in having access to them, we have access to Him.

Again, Porter and Pitts do not make these apologetic points. Their focus is on introducing the discipline to students, and they do this well and objectively. Anyone interested in the textual criticism of the New Testament thus will find accurate information here. Still, as a minister, I can’t help but think that this introduction is capable of inoculating readers against certain viruses of the mind about the Bible contained in both pop culture and certain academic quarters.

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Review of ’40/40 Vision’ by Peter Greer and Greg Lafferty


40-40_Vision_book_350Peter Greer and Greg Lafferty, 40/40 Vision: Clarifying Your Mission in Midlife (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2015).

[Note: This review originally appeared at InfluenceMagazine.com.]

An 80-country survey asked respondents, “All things considered, how satisfied are you with your life as a whole these days?” People in their 40s were least satisfied, with 46-year-olds being unhappiest. I am 46 years old. Needless to say, I read Peter Greer and Greg Lafferty’s new book with keen interest.

The forties are the decade when men and women experience midlife crisis. They are halfway through their lives equidistant from the start of their professions and their retirement. The twenties and thirties are predominated by questions of success. In the forties, however, questions of significance take the lead.

According to Greer and Lafferty, the kinds of questions 40-year-olds ask are these: “All this work, does it even matter? I’ve striven for so long, but I’m still not there—and now I’m losing interest. Why am I not happier? Is this my lot in life? Did I miss my calling? Is it too late for a do-over? Was all that I pursued in my thirties a mistake?” (emphasis in the original).

These are questions of meaning. To navigate the turbulence of the forties is thus to navigate the waters of life’s meaning. And few books of the Bible address the question of meaning more acutely than Ecclesiastes.

But wait, you’re thinking to yourself; doesn’t Ecclesiastes say that life is meaningless? “‘Meaningless! Meaningless!’ says the Teacher. ‘Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless’” (1:2). If you’re having a midlife crisis, that’s hardly the kind of statement to cheer you up.

True, but as Greer and Lafferty point out, Ecclesiastes’ perspective is that of a “functional deist,” that is, “a person who acknowledges God’s existence but suffers due to his apparent absence.” Such a person can experience great success and pleasure in life, and yet still discover that they don’t guarantee a meaningful life. What is needed is a larger worldview, an above-the-sun perspective.

An above-the-sun perspective gives meaning to an under-the-sun life not by pooh-poohing success or pleasure, but by qualifying them, by helping us see the goodness in life’s limitations. For example, chapter 6, “(Un)charitable,” deals with the concept of “true wealth.” Ecclesiastes 5:10 truly said, “Whoever loves money never has enough; whoever loves money is never satisfied with their income. This too is meaningless.”

But notice the parentheses in the chapter title; they are important. A person focused on getting is uncharitable. But place that negative prefix un- in parenthesis—qualify or limit it—and you discover that wealth isn’t the problem. It’s the lack of generosity. The authors write, “In the United States, we’ve developed super-sized appetites for pleasure, but we haven’t experienced a corresponding rise in our taste for giving.” Accumulating money doesn’t make you happy or filled with a sense of meaning. Being generous with what you have does, however.

The same can be said for all the goods we pursue in life. They’re not necessarily bad in and of themselves, but they’re unalloyed goods either. A meaningful life recognizes their limited, qualified, under-the-sun goodness.

Only God, who lives “above the sun” is unqualifiedly good, so our search for meaning in midlife must inevitably turn to Him. Of one of the criminals crucified alongside Christ, Greer and Lafferty write: “In many ways, he typifies a wasted life, a nameless man engaged in senseless violence. But during his brief moment on stage, he said a line that goes down as one of the greatest in history: ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom’ (Luke 23:42).” And that request saves him. “Boom. Immortal. One moment of clarity in a life of futility, and everything changes.”

Precisely because I’m in my forties, I paid close attention to the advice given in 40/40 Vision, and I recommend it highly, especially if you’re in midlife too. I want my next forty years to be even better than my first forty. I especially recommend reading the book to forty-something pastors. It’s hard enough to lead a congregation under normal circumstances, let alone on top of a midlife crisis. Get help early and often!

At the start of this review, I noted that 46 years of age was the low point of unhappiness in that global survey. If that’s where you are today, you don’t have to get stuck there! For, to borrow a phrase from Ecclesiastes, God will make everything beautiful in its time (3:11).

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Review of ‘Augustine’s Confessions: Christian Guides to the Classics’ by Leland Ryken


Leland Ryken, Augustine’s Confessions, Christian Guides to the Classics (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2015). Paperback | Kindle

Augustine’s Confessions is a spiritual and literary classic. He began to write it in A.D. 397, ten years after his conversion to Christianity, when he was bishop of Hippo in Roman North Africa, partly to respond to his critics. Books 1–9 are largely autobiographical, while Books 10–13 include meditations on memory, time, and the Book of Genesis.

The book continues to fascinate and inspire readers, both scholars and laypeople, but it is not easy to read. Augustine mixes autobiographical reflections, biographical portraits of others, theological and philosophical arguments, psychological self-analysis, and biblical interpretation, among other things, in a continuous prayer to God. Modern readers who approach the book with contemporary autobiographical models in mind are likely to be confused and frustrated when they start reading it.

As part of a series of “Christian Guides to the Classics,” Leland Ryken has authored a literary introduction to Augustine’s Confessions that helped me prepare to reread the book, which I last read in college. After a brief overview of the book and its author, Ryken analyzes each of the Confessions’ thirteen books under the headings “Summary,” “Commentary,” and “For Reflection and Discussion.”

Ryken’s primary focus is on the literary qualities of the Confessions, so readers wanting a more detailed introduction to its theology and philosophy should look elsewhere. Evangelical readers, whether college students or otherwise, will appreciate Ryken’s positive evaluation of Augustine’s work, even as he criticizes aspects of the great saint’s theology. Readers may also want to check out Ryken’s A Christian Guide to the Classics, which I reviewed here. It provides a helpful introduction to what classics are and why they deserve to be read today.

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