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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Review of ‘The Good News about Marriage’ by Shaunti Feldhahn with Tally Whitehead


The-Good-News-about-Marriage Shaunti Feldhahn with Tally Whitehead, The Good News about Marriage: Debunking Discouraging Myths about Marriage and Divorce (Colorado Springs, CO: Multnomah Books, 2014). Hardcover / Kindle

Marriage survives by hope. If a husband and wife believe that their relationship can get better, chances are that it will. They may have to tread a difficult path for a time, but eventually, the road becomes smoother and they arrive at their destination: a fulfilling life together.

Unfortunately, many of the statistics about marriage and divorce that are prevalent in our culture destroy hope. Fifty percent of all marriages end in divorce, we’re told. For second and third marriages, the divorce rate is even higher: 60 and 73 percent, respectively. Few couples are satisfied with their marriages. Though Christians talk a good game about marriage and family, the reality of divorce and dissatisfaction is the same for them as for everyone else. Finally, making a marriage work requires bigger changes than most couples are willing to make.

The funny thing about these hope-destroying statistics is that they’re wrong, misleading, or both. Instead, as Shaunti Feldhahn and Tally Whitehead argue in their new book, there’s plenty of good news about marriage. Indeed, they identify five specific pieces of good news:

  1. The vast majority of marriages last a lifetime; the current divorce rate has never been close to 50 percent—it is closer to 20 to 25 percent for first-time marriages and 31 percent for all marriages—and has been declining for years (p. 39).
  2. The vast majority of marriages are happy (around 80 percent)! Most people are glad they married their spouse and, given the chance, would do it all over again (p. 61).
  3. The rate of divorce in the church is 25 to 50 percent lower than among those who don’t attend worship services, and those who prioritize their faith and/or pray together are dramatically happier and more connected (p. 86).
  4. The large majority of remarriages last. Among women in second marriages, 65 percent are still married to their spouse, and of those who aren’t, many are widowed rather than divorced (p. 101).
  5. In most cases, having a good marriage or improving a struggling one doesn’t have to be ultra complicated or solve deep, systemic issues; small changes can and do often make a big difference (p. 117).

The authors recognize that getting good statistics about marriage and divorce is not an easy undertaking. Different studies ask different questions. The sample is occasionally not representative. The data sometimes point in different directions. And not all family scholars agree on conclusions.

Nevertheless, Feldhahn and Whitehead make a reasonable case for their conclusions, drawing on the best experts in the field and the best studies. Those wishing to investigate for themselves can read the authorities cited in the footnotes for themselves and draw their own conclusions. My guess is that they’ll come away convinced that Feldhahn and Whitehead are substantially correct.

Who, then, should read this book? Although drawing on social science research, this is not a social science book. Instead, it uses good research to help couples, marriage counselors, and Christian leaders better prepare themselves and others for lasting, fulfilling marriages. This hope-filled approach is helpful, for as the authors say, “‘You can believe in marriage’ can become the new normal” (p. 124).

Let’s hope so!

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P.P.S. For more good news about marriage, as well as practical advice for making your marriage good, visit http://www.shaunti.com.

Review of ‘Socrates Meets Marx’ by Peter Kreeft


Socrates-Meets-Marx Peter Kreeft, Socrates Meets Marx: The Father of Philosophy Cross-examines the Founder of Communism (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2003). Paperback / Kindle

The setting for all the books in Peter Kreeft’s Socrates Meets _____ series is Purgatory, where Socrates engages a famous philosopher in dialogue about one of the latter’s best-known books. Inspired by both Plato’s dialogues and Dante’s Divine Comedy, this setting gives Kreeft the opportunity to unpack—and even unwind—a philosopher’s arguments by use of close, but often humorous reasoning. Philosophers examined in this series include Descartes, Hume, Kant, Machiavelli, and Sartre.

This volume examines Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto. The juxtaposition of Socrates and Marx allows for a theme that runs through the entirety of the dialogue, namely, the opposition between Socrates’ idealism and Marx’s materialism. Can ideas be universal and absolute, as Socrates maintains, or are they relative to the material forms of life that give rise to them, as Marx maintains? For example, is logic the same in every age, or does it change over time, resulting in a feudal logic, a bourgeois logic, and a proletarian logic, among others?

As post-Cold War readers, we know—at least, we should know—that Marx’s communist project is an abysmal failure, a historical tragedy that slaved millions rather than liberating anyone. And Socrates makes sure Marx understands this failure. (Evidently, in Purgatory, the past, present, and future are equally present to Socrates—a helpful literary device.)

This historical criticism of Communism, however important, does not occupy more space than it needs to in the dialogue. Far greater and closer attention is paid to Marx’s ideas themselves, not simply the consequences of those ideas. Where Kreeft’s Socratic dialogue succeeds brilliantly is in showing the self-contradictions of Marx’s philosophy, its lack of empirical evidence, and its incredibly dour picture of the human race, one not supported by the reality of actual humans.

Socrates Meets Marx is well written, clearly argued, and humorously entertaining. I’d recommend reading a contemporary English translation of The Communist Manifesto, then picking up Kreeft’s little book as its constant companion. Highly recommended to students of philosophy!

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Review of ‘The Quotable Wesley’ by Dave Armstrong


The-Quotable-Wesley Dave Armstrong, ed., The Quotable Wesley (Kansas City, MO: Beacon Hill Press, 2014). Paperback

The past decade have witnessed a remarkable resurgence of Calvinism among evangelicals. Collin Hansen famously described this movement as “young, restless, Reformed” in his book of that title. The book’s cover included a young man wearing a T-shirt with Jonathan Edward’s visage on it, surrounded by the legend, “JONATHAN EDWARDS IS MY HOMEBOY.”

Those of us who are not Calvinists—I’m Pentecostal—could use our own homeboy, and I’d like to suggest that it be John Wesley. There are several reasons for this: (1) Wesley worked alongside Calvinists such as George Whitefield to advance the gospel, remembering to distinguish the evangelical core they held in common from the Calvinist elements that divided them. This is a model for us today. (2) Though not a systematic thinker like Edwards, Wesley was a comprehensive thinker whose sermons, pamphlets, tracts, and commentaries ranged across the whole counsel of Scripture. (3) Wesley not only organized the church for revival, he also motivated Christians to engage in social reform. This inside-outside strategy is once again needed in the early 21st-century American church.

The problem is that like Edwards, Wesley was a voluminous writer. The Bicentennial Edition of The Works of John Wesley runs to 26 volumes, 19 of them currently in print. Thomas Oden has just completed a four-volume John Wesley’s Teachings, with an outline of his understanding of God and providence, Christ and salvation, pastoral theology, and ethics and society. While these illuminate the comprehensive character of Wesley’s thought, quoting him at length, it’s not always easy to find Wesley’s sentiment on a given topic.

With The Quotable Wesley, Dave Armstrong provides an A–Z compendium of Wesley’s thinking. (Literally. Armstrong starts with ABSOLUTION and works through the alphabet to ZEAL.) Some of Wesley’s comments are made aphoristically, such as this one from the section, CHURCH FATHERS: “We prove the doctrines we preach by Scripture and reason and, if need be, by antiquity.” Other comments are made at length, such as the numerous entries on ATONEMENT, both against Calvinism’s limited atonement and in favor of Arminianism’s universal atonement.

Several themes quickly emerged from my perusal of this book:

First, Wesley was a thoroughgoing evangelical in the gospel-sense of that word. He believed that we are justified by grace through faith apart from works, a justification made necessary because of our sin, both original and personal. Through these affirmations, Wesley outlined a core of doctrine and preaching that can unite evangelicals whether they are Arminian or Calvinist.

Second, Wesley was a thoroughgoing Arminian, for lack of a better term. He cited chapter and verse of Scripture, not to mention logic and the church fathers, against the Calvinist doctrines of unconditional election, limited atonement, and irresistible grace. Armstrong had many selections from Wesley’s works to choose from to illustrate Wesley’s doctrine, and he chose well.

Third, Wesley was a committed Anglican, though not blind to its failings. Those who are accustomed to the controversies currently roiling the worldwide Anglican communion will be either surprised or encouraged by Wesley’s affirmation, “[My doctrine is] of the Bible, of the primitive church, and, in consequence, of the Church of England.” He did not hesitate to work outside the system—through field preaching and lay assistants, for example—when it became necessary to do so. Toward the end of his life, elements of the Methodist movement began to form themselves into a church separate form the Church of England. Wesley opposed this, though less strongly than his brother Charles. He was pragmatic enough to know that it might accomplish good work.

Fourth, as a Pentecostal, I was appreciative of many of Wesley’s remarks on cessationism, demonic possession, and healing, though less so of his remarks on tongues. How can one not appreciate this remark, on the real origin of cessationism: “This was a real cause, why the extraordinary gifts of the Holy Ghost were no longer to be found in the Christian church; because the Christians were turned heathens again and had only a dead form left.” I felt my heart strangely warmed reading these words.

Fifth, of course, is Wesley’s insistence on personal sanctification, community, and social reform.. He defined sanctification as “an inward thing, the life of God in the soul of man; a participation of the divine nature; the mind that was in Christ; or, the renewal of our heart after the image of him that created us.” But while sanctification happened in the life of the individual person, the Christian life was not individualistic. “Christianity is essentially a social religion and to turn it into a solitary religion is indeed to destroy it.” A life of holiness led ineluctably to social reform. Regarding “distilled liquors,” he wrote: “were it in my power, I would banish them out of the world.” Regarding slavery: “I absolutely deny all slave-holding to be consistent with any degree of natural justice.”

I could go on, but you get the point. Wesley presents a form of the Christian religion that is biblical, rational, and traditional. It appeals to head and heart, faith and works. It applies to the individual, the church, and society as a whole. Such a comprehensive, holistic vision of Christianity is a pressing need of our times.

Many thanks to Dave Armstrong for organizing choice quotes topically and in one concise volume.

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Review of ‘Jabotinsky: A Life’ by Hillel Halkin


Jabotinsky Hillel Halkin, Jabotinsky: A Life (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2014). Hardcover / Kindle

One day, while I was waiting for my chai latte at the café, a friend noticed Hillel Halkin’s book in my hand and asked, “Who is Jabotinsky?” I should note that my friend is given to reading obscure books by obscurer theologians. But he joked that I had “out-obscured” him this time with my choice of reading.

So, who is Jabotinsky? Why is he worth reading about, especially if you, like me, are a Gentile Christian reader?

The answer to both questions is straightforward: Vladimir “Ze’ev” Jabotinsky (1880–1940) was the founder and leader of Revisionist Zionism. He is worth reading about because of his influence on the Israeli Right, including Menachem Begin, Israel’s first Likud prime minister, and Benjamin Netanyahu, its current Likud prime minister. (Netanyahu’s father, Ben-Zion, was an aide to Jabotinsky.) And his form of Zionism complicates American Christian support for Israel in interesting ways.

That last point requires explication. Christian Zionists typically believe that the re-establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 was the fulfillment of biblical prophecy. But the Zionists whose labors brought this about were not particularly observant Jews. (Religious observant Jews in Israel today tend to lean Right, often forming political alliances with Likud.) Moreover, they vigorously disagreed—occasionally to the point of physical fights—on political and military means and ends.

The dominant form of Zionism in the early years was Socialist and largely secular, the predecessor of today’s Israeli Left. (For anticommunist American Christians, this is always something of a surprise.) They tended to think peace with the Arabs was possible and often agreed with the various partition plans (prior to 1948) of the League of Nations and its successor, the United Nations. Revisionists, on the other hand, prepared for battle from the get-go and were territorial maximalists. What united Left and Right was the dream of a Jewish nation in its historic homeland. To a certain extent, they collaborated as the British Mandate in Palestine wound down after World War II and then in the War for Independence against the Arabs. But that collaboration, rare before Independence, rare after it, was tactical rather than strategic. The divisions between Left and Right were bitter in Jabotinsky’s day. They have not become sweeter since. Jabotinsky was denounced by the Zionist Left as a “fascist,” a canard that is regularly applied by the Israeli Left to the Israeli Right in the present day, applied more generally to all Israelis by anti-Semitic streams in Europe and the Arab world.

I mention these things because Christian Zionists often have an uninformed view of Israeli history. I have met many sincere Christians who think they can skip directly from biblical Israel to modern Judaism, seemingly unaware of both the evolution of the religion of Hebrew Scriptures into rabbinic Judaism and of the prevalent secularism of Zionism in its earliest forms. (They are really shocked when they discover that some ultraorthodox Jews are not even Zionists at all!) Christian support for Israel should not be informed by such errors. If you’re going to support the nation, at least understand its history correctly.

There is another reason to read this book, however—aside from the light it will shed on a crucial chapter in Zionist history. That reason is the intrinsic interestingness of Jabotinsky’s life. He was born in Odessa, Russia. Odessa was a relatively new city, filled with all sorts of ethnic and religious minorities. While many other Russian and Eastern European Jews experienced pervasive discrimination, Jabotinsky grew up in a relatively liberal environment. He wasn’t a resident of the shtetl, he was a cosmopolitan. He didn’t become a Zionist out of a reactive mechanism of self-defense. He chose to become one.

Hillel Halkin pays particular attention to the cosmopolitan side of Jabotinsky’s personality through close and regular attention to his journalism, short stories, poems, books, and plays. The Russian author Alexander Kuprin once told a Jewish audience that Jabotinsky had “a God-given talent who could have been an eagle of Russian literature had you not stolen him from us” and drawn him into Zionist political activity. Kuprin went on to say, “What a great loss to Russian literature, only a few of whose writers have been blessed with his style, his wit, his insight into our soul!” Jabotinsky was educated, well traveled, fluent in several languages, and a man of letters who settled into politics, lured by the necessities of his age.

His life should not be reduced to politics, as important as they were to him and as enduring as his political legacy may be. No one’s life should be. The personal is always more than—and more interesting than—the political, even in the life of a man who gave himself to politics for the sake of Zion.

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P.P.S. You might also want to check out Menachem Begin by Daniel Gordis. (See my review here.)

Review of ‘Earth and Sky: A Beautiful Collision of Grace and Grief’ by Guy Delcambre


Earth-and-Sky Guy Delcambre, Earth and Sky: A Beautiful Collision of Grace and Grief (Springfield, MO: Influence Resources, 2014). Paperback / Kindle

By nature, I am a worst-case scenario thinker. Put me in any situation, and I’ll think of all the bad things that might happen. The scenario that worries me most—the situation that gives me nightmares—is the death of my wife or son.

Guy Delcambre lived my worst-case scenario. His wife Marianne died after a five-day hospitalization in the ICU, leaving him without a partner and their daughters without a parent. Earth and Sky is a memoir of his grief and the grace he found within it.

Three sentences within this short, beautifully written book capture its essence for me:

  • “Healing is a process that begins with hurting. If you never fully hurt, you never fully heal” (p. 33).
  • “Grief and loss imploded the life I knew; grace and love rebuilt it” (p. 151).
  • “Grace is blocked when we play games and put on masks. It thrives when we find the courage to be honest with God” (p. 153).

Having suffered a months-long bout clinical depression nearly 20 years ago, I can attest the truthfulness of these words. Life leaves a mark. It wounds. It hurts. There’s no point in denying it. By the same token, God heals. There’s no point in denying that either. The key is to remove the masks of denial and despair and let God in.

If you’re looking for a book that outlines how to get through grief or one that defines the biblical perspective on loss, this is not the book to read. If you’re looking for hope, for the story of a fellow sufferer who lived to tell the tale, I encourage you to read this book.

(Full disclosure: I work for the parent company of Influence Resources, though not for Influence Resources itself.)

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P.P.S. The Kindle version of Earth and Sky is currently available for $0.99.