Review of ‘Preaching in an Age of Distraction’ by J. Ellsworth Kalas

Unknown J. Ellsworth Kalas, Preaching in an Age of Distraction (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2014). Paperback / Kindle

Ours is an Age of Distraction.

The ubiquity of smart phones and social media, together with the crush of the 24/7 news cycle, creates an overload of information that renders concentration difficult. The proliferation of options regarding household necessities, entertainment options, and extracurricular activities renders even the best decision-makers anxious.

Should I buy oatmeal or cream of wheat? A specific brand or generic? Instant or… Wait, my cell phone is ringing. My wife wants me to pick up our son from his play date and take him to baseball practice before we all go to church tonight.

As ministers of the gospel, we are distracted. Our parishioners are distracted. Our culture is distracted.

How do we preach as such people to such people in such an age? How do we become undistracted preachers ourselves?

J. Ellsworth Kalas sets out to answer these questions in this little gem of a book. Kalas is a United Methodist minister and senior professor of homiletics at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. Like John Wesley, his spiritual forefather, Kalas wants preachers to speak plain truth to plain people. To do that, they need to cultivate excellence in their own lives so that they can minister with excellence to the people of God.

In many ways, Preaching in an Age of Distraction is a primer in homiletics, covering the standard topics: the preacher’s spiritual formation, preparation, and sermon content and delivery. But using distraction as a fundamental problem to solve gives poignancy and piquancy to his remarks. The book helps preachers move from distraction to excellence.

Preaching in an Age of Distraction is an good book—an instant classic, I hope—for pastors just setting out in their ministries, as well as those stuck in the mud who need help out.

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

Review of ‘Seeing Black and White in a Gray World’ by Bill T. Arnold

Seeing-Black-and-white Bill T. Arnold, Seeing Black and White in a Gray World: The Need for Theological Reasoning in the Church’s Debate Over Sexuality (Franklin, TN: Seedbed Publishing, 2014). Paperback / Kindle

Few topics generate as much heated conflict among Christians as homosexuality does. Should pastors solemnize and churches recognize same-sex marriages? Should denominations ordain non-celibate gays and lesbians for ministry? The conflict over these questions has been evident among mainline Protestant churches for some time now, but it is increasingly appearing among evangelical Protestant churches too.

In 2008, Adam Hamilton—who pastors America’s largest United Methodist church in Leawood, Kansas—published Seeing Gray in a World of Black and White. In that book, he argued that a “third way” on the topic of homosexuality was both possible and preferable—as well as on other topics that divide Christian. The book was influential among United Methodist pastors and more broadly on what one might call “liberal” evangelicals.

Bill T. Arnold is an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church, as well as a professor of Old Testament studies at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. Seeing Black and White in a Gray World is his critique of Hamilton’s book, focusing on the need for a theological approach to the question of homosexuality, one that he believes is lacking from Hamilton’s book.

Arnold lays out his case clearly, logically, and graciously. He argues that a “third way” on homosexuality is not possible because solemnizing same-sex marriages and ordaining non-celibate LGBT persons is either right or wrong as a matter of moral principle. A “third way” is not preferable because unity should not be bought through a compromise of moral principle. And a “third way” does not necessarily represent progress because the Church always stands in a tensive relationship with culture, with the goal of transforming it. To do this, the church must sometimes issue a prophetic critique of cultural trends, such as the increasing acceptance of same-sex marriage, not just a spiritual affirmation of them.

Arnold also argues that the traditional Methodist process of theological reasoning—the so-called Wesleyan Quadrilateral of Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience—should lead the United Methodist Church to reject same-sex marriage. He pinpoints the crux of the controversy in that denomination as a debate between what Scripture teaches about homosexual conduct on the one hand and a contemporary social construction of homosexual experience on the other. In his judgment, too many Methodists—including Hamilton, to a degree—give experience a weight equal to or greater than Scripture. This, he points out, is not how the Quadrilateral is supposed to work. Tradition, reason, and experience may confirm what Scripture teaches—or help us understand it better—but they cannot be used as independent norms that contradict and overturn explicit biblical prohibitions.

Finally, Arnold repeatedly points to the longstanding practices of the United Methodist Church a moderate way to deal with the controversy. These practices combine the teaching of holiness with the practice of hospitality, the former a core doctrinal tenet and the latter an important moral virtue. The biblical affirmation of marriage as a man-woman institution need not—must not!—be construed as permission to be unkind or unloving to people who experience same-sex attraction. By the same token, the biblical practice of hospitality cannot be taken as an endorsement of sexual practices the Bible prohibits.

Proponents of same-sex marriage within the United Methodist Church will probably not like Seeing Black and White in a Gray World. But it seems to me that whether or not they agree with Arnold on the topic of homosexuality, they must agree with him that there is no “third way.” If Scripture prohibits same-sex practices, the United Methodist Church cannot permit them. If Scripture permits same-sex practices, the United Methodist Church cannot prohibit them. There is no mediating alternative, no “gray.” There is only “black” or “white.” This means that Adam Hamilton’s search for an alternative is doomed to fail.

Those of us outside the United Methodist Church, in evangelical Protestant churches that do not affirm same-sex marriage, would do well to read Arnold’s book too. It sheds light on the debate over homosexuality in the Church without generating more heat.

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

Mozilla’s Orwellian Announcement about Brendan Eich’s Resignation

In 2008, Brendan Eich donated $1,000 to a group that supported Prop 8, which amended California’s constitution to define marriage as the union of a man and a woman. Voters passed the ballot initiative by 52 percent to 48 percent.

In 2014, Eich–who created JavaScript and cofounded the Mozilla Foundation–became CEO of Mozilla Corporation. Because of his support for Prop 8, OkCupid (an online dating service), several Mozilla board members and employees, and Mozilla users called for him to step down. Yesterday, he did that.

My purpose in this post is not to argue about same-sex marriage. For the record, I voted for Prop 8, so you can guess my views. Nor is it to argue whether companies have rights to set standards for their employees. They do.

My purpose is rather to point out the sheer Orwellian nature of the official statement about Eich released by Mitchell Baker, executive chairwoman of Mozilla. Here is it, in its entirety, with my comments in bold brackets.


Mozilla prides itself on being held to a different standard and, this past week, we didn’t live up to it. [No joke!] We know why people are hurt and angry, and they are right: it’s because we haven’t stayed true to ourselves. [Right. (a) How does a corporation stay true to itself if, as many on the Left claims, corporations aren't people? (b) Given that Eich was a cofounder of Mozilla--present at the creation, one might say--how can he be excluded from the "ourselves" to which you claim you didn't "stay true"? Less obliquely, you "proved false" to one of your founders. Wasn't that also an act of betrayal to your community?]

We didn’t act like you’d expect Mozilla to act. We didn’t move fast enough to engage with people once the controversy started. We’re sorry. We must do better. [And by "you," you mean that group of Mozilla users who support gay marriage and protested loudly at Eich's new job as CEO. Presumably, you didn't bother to take into account--or care about--Mozilla users who do not support same-sex marriage. But, whatever...]

Brendan Eich has chosen to step down from his role as CEO. He’s made this decision for Mozilla and our community. [In other words, you're a jerk, but he's a stand-up guy. And by "chosen to step down," do you really mean "given the option to resign or be fired"?]

Mozilla believes both in equality and freedom of speech. [Excellent!] Equality is necessary for meaningful speech. [Okay, but why "meaningful" rather than "free"?] And you need free speech to fight for equality. [Absolutely!] Figuring out how to stand for both at the same time can be hard. [Only if your desire for equality trumps your commitment to free speech.]

Our organizational culture reflects diversity and inclusiveness. We welcome contributions from everyone regardless of age, culture, ethnicity, gender, gender-identity, language, race, sexual orientation, geographical location and religious views. Mozilla supports equality for all. [Except people whose views don't support same-sex marriage.]

We have employees with a wide diversity of views. [One less diversely-viewed employee as of yesterday.] Our culture of openness extends to encouraging staff and community to share their beliefs and opinions in public. [Unless it involves donating money to support Prop 8 in 2008.] This is meant to distinguish Mozilla from most organizations and hold us to a higher standard. [Meant to, but in this case did not.] But this time we failed to listen, to engage, and to be guided by our community. [Now I'm just confused. You've transitioned from "encouraging staff and community to share their beliefs and opinions in public" to "fail[ing] to listen and “be guided by our community.” This implies that your commitment to your staff’s sharing exists in reverse proportion to your users’ liking what they share. And, it needs to be remembered, that Brandon Eich was a founding member of that community and that not all Mozilla users support same-sex marriage. So, you’re failing to listen to that segment of your “community” that complains most loudly. Point taken for the next time.]

While painful [especially for Brandon Eich, whose lost his job], the events of the last week show exactly why we need the web. So all of us can engage freely in the tough conversations we need to make the world better. [Except, of course, when that "tough conversation" involves same-sex marriage. Then we punish employees whose views we don't like.]

We need to put our focus back on protecting that Web. And doing so in a way that will make you proud to support Mozilla. [How can you "protect that web," the one that allows "tough conversations," when you defenestrate an employee who engages in that conversation?]

What’s next for Mozilla’s leadership is still being discussed. [I bet. And I wouldn't be surprised if the discussion involved lawyers.] We want to be open about where we are in deciding the future of the organization and will have more information next week. However, our mission will always be to make the Web more open [except to opponents of same-sex marriage] so that humanity is stronger [except opponents of same-sex marriage, whom we hope lose their jobs at tech companies], more inclusive [unless they donated to Prop 8 six years ago] and more just [where justice is defined as hounding opponents of same-sex marriage out of their jobs]: that’s what it means to protect the open Web [except for Brandon Eich; we've closed his Web just a little].

We will emerge from this with a renewed understanding and humility — our large, global, and diverse [but not too diverse...wink, wink] community is what makes Mozilla special, and what will help us fulfill our mission [to extirpate troglodytic supporters of traditional marriage from our ranks]. We are stronger with you involved [because it took quite a few people to push Brandon Eich out the corporate window].

Thank you for sticking with us [unlike how we treated our cofounder, Brandon Eich].

Mitchell Baker, Executive Chairwoman

Review of ‘Spirit of Steamboat’ by Craig Johnson

Spirit-of-Steamboat Craig Johnson, Spirit of Steamboat: A Walt Longmire Mystery (New York: Viking, 2013). Hardcover / Kindle

As a general rule, the book is better than the movie or television show that is based on it. Even though A&E’s Longmire is good, Craig Johnson’s Walt Longmire mysteries are better. So, if you like the show, read the series!

Spirit of Steamboat is the latest book in that series. It is less a whodunit than a who-is-he? In other words, Sheriff Longmire doesn’t solve a crime during the story. Instead, the story reveals the true character of one of his companions.

A young Japanese woman walks into the sheriff’s office with a dry cleaning bag and a story to tell. It quickly becomes clear that she’s looking for Longmire and his crusty old predecessor in the sheriff’s office, Lucian Connally. At first, however, neither of them remembers her.

But then, the memories come back: of a horrific car accident, a ferocious winter storm, and a dangerous life-flight to Denver.

To be honest, it took me a while to get into this story. For me, it started slowly, and I kept putting it down. But when I finally set aside some time to read it, I read it through in a single sitting. Craig Johnson is an excellent storyteller, and this one sucked me in at last.

Bottom line: Not as good as Johnson’s Walt Longmire mysteries, but still pretty good.

P.S. If you found my review helpful, please vote yes on my review page.

Review of ‘James Jesus Angleton’ by Edward Jay Epstein

James-Jesus-Angleton Edward Jay Epstein, James Jesus Angleton: Was He Right? (New York: EJE Publications, 2013). Paperback / Kindle

When I was younger and unmarried, I eagerly anticipated the release of new Tom Clancy novels. I would buy them after work and begin reading them at dinner, often skipping sleep (and work the next day) to finish them quickly. What drew me to Clancy’s work was the multilayered complexity of his portrait of the espionage business.

Clancy’s fiction had nothing on James Jesus Angleton’s reality. Angleton was chief of the CIA’s Counterintelligence Staff from 1954 to 1975, in many ways the height of the Cold War. His job was to discern KGB disinformation and to ferret out Soviet moles within the CIA. By the end of his career, he was reviled by many and revered by some. Many felt that his anxieties about the bona fides of the CIA’s Soviet sources were paranoid and delusional. Others felt that the arrogance of CIA staff and their unwillingness to admit the possibility of Soviet penetration made them vulnerable to deception.

The most crucial question, obviously, was whether Angleton was right. At the time of his resignation in 1975, the answer was not obvious. But the convictions of CIA counterintelligence officer and analyst Aldrich Ames in 1994 and of FBI counterintelligence agent Robert Hanssen in 2001 demonstrated that Angleton’s greatest fear (the feedback loop of disinformation from the outside and a mole on the inside) was possible, even if neither Ames nor Hanssen were operative during the Ames years.

Edward Jay Epstein tells Angleton’s story in this little book, laying out in simple form the cause and reasonability of Angleton’s alarm. Evidently, this little book is identical to the opening chapters of the author’s book, Deception: The Invisible War Between the KGB and CIA, so if you want to read the longer book, don’t buy this one. Nonetheless, a gripping story expertly told.

P.S. If  you found my review helpful, please vote yes on my review page.

Review of ‘The Rise and Decline of American Religious Freedom’ by Steven D. Smith

RiseAndDeclineofAmericanReligiousFreedom Steven D. Smith, The Rise and Decline of American Religious Freedom (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014). Hardback / Kindle

In America, religious freedom is often named “the first freedom.” One reason reason for this name is religious freedom’s pride of place in the First Amendment. Only after stating, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” does that amendment go on to prohibit congressional laws “abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” The order of the First Amendment points to a second, more important reason for the name, however: the primacy of conscience that religious freedom protects.

One would think that religious freedom would unite Americans of all persuasions, religious and political. Unfortunately, however, religious freedom itself has become a controversial topic within our increasingly secular and egalitarian political culture. Flashpoints are numerous, but certain clashes are especially prominent at the present moment: the rights of religious groups at public schools, the constitutionality of the so-called ministerial exception, the burden ObamaCare’s sterilization-contraception-abortifacient mandate places on religious business owners; and the increasingly tense battle between gay rights groups and religious believers on the topic of same-sex marriage.

Underlying these conflicts are two very different narratives regarding the meaning of American religious freedom, whose differences Steven D. Smith outlines in The Rise and Decline of American Religious Freedom.

The “standard story” traces the intellectual roots of religious freedom to the Enlightenment; interprets the First Amendment as a radical innovation in public affairs; contends that its meaning was imperfectly realized in the 19th century, when evangelical Protestant Christianity was America’s established religion de facto, though not de jure; and lauds Supreme Court decisions from the mid-20th century onward for their deconstruction of this de facto establishment and construction, in its place, of secularism and neutrality toward religion. A fifth element of this narrative, increasingly evident among legal elites, though not necessarily in the courts, is the belief that religious freedom is outmoded and therefore should be discarded because it is antithetical to the egalitarian outcomes government exists to secure. If, for example, religious freedom is simply the last refuge of homophobic bigots—as same-sex marriage proponents loudly complain—why should it be preserved?

In sharp contrast to the standard story, Smith proposes a “revised version,” a point-by-point refutation of the former, or at least a counter-narrative to it. This version traces the intellectual roots of religious freedom farther back than the Enlightenment—indeed, to predominantly Christian emphases on the freedom of the church and the liberty of conscience. Far from being a radical innovation, the First Amendment was a non-controversial, ho-hum affirmation of the American status quo, affirming jurisdictional limitations on the federal government’s involvement with religion, which left state governments free to establish or disestablish religions as they pleased. The resulting “American settlement” allowed for “open contestation” between advocates of “providentialism” and “secularism,” even as it enforced jurisdictional boundaries between the federal government and the nation’s churches. Among other things, this settlement allowed presidents to declare national days of prayer and thanksgiving, politicians to offer theological motives for laws with secular effects, and public schoolchildren to pray and hear the Bible read by the teacher in the classroom. Rather than maintain this settlement, the mid-20th-century Supreme Court ended the policy of open contestation and declared that government must be both secular and neutral with regard to religion. This secular neutrality is out of step with American legal and political traditions and is not neutral with regard to religion. Rather, it deprivileges religion in favor of secular accounts of reality. As noted above, some legal theorists want to dispense with religious freedom altogether, arguing that religious believers’ rights of speech, press, freedom of association, and redress of grievances would be more than adequately protected in its absence.

But Smith wonders whether this would actually be so, closing his book with these words:

In childlike fashion, perhaps, let us indulge the assumption that unlike so many rulers throughout history, our contemporary governors are true men (and women) and good, genuinely motivated by a desire to govern justly. Even so, we might recall Justice Louis Brandeis’s observation that “[e]xperience should teach us to be most on guard to protect liberty when the Government’s purposes are beneficent… The greatest dangers to liberty lurk in insidious encroachment by men of zeal, well-meaning but without understanding.”

So it is just possible that the forgetting or forgoing of the logic of jurisdiction that animated the commitment to freedom of church and conscience, and thereby set and underscored bounds to the jurisdiction of the state, might turn out to be a loss sorely lamented…

In other words, should the first freedom fall, can the second, third, and fourth freedoms continue to withstand the encroachment of state power? That’s a good question, and Steven D. Smith should be thanked for raising it in his timely and illuminating study of American religious freedom’s rise and decline.

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

Review of ‘An Officer an a Spy’ by Robert Harris

Unknown-2 Robert Harris, An Officer and a Spy (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014). Hardback / Kindle

In 1894, the French Army arrested, indicted, court martialed, convicted, and sent into penal exile Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a French Jew, for selling military secrets to the Germans. Due to problems with the evidence against him, Dreyfus was retried in 1899 but once again found guilty. Only in 1906, before the Supreme Court of Appeals, was Dreyfus exonerated, restored to the Army at the rank of lieutenant colonel, and declared a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor. He had proclaimed his innocence through his 12 years of suffering.

The Dreyfus Affair rocked French society and politics in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It exposed the French Army’s incompetence (in arresting the wrong man), corruption (for fabricating evidence against him), and incorrigibility (for taking 12 years to rectify the wrong it had done). The affair pitted traditional Catholic France (the Right) against socialist secular France (the Left) and resulted in changes of government and law, including the drastic 1905 law separating Church and State. (The official French policy of laicité stems from that law.) The virulent anti-Semitism of the affair also prompted Theodore Herzl, a Jewish journalist covering the 1894 court martial for Vienna’s Neue Freie Presse, to reject the strategy of Jewish assimilation into European society and to propose the establishment of a Jewish state instead.

In An Officer and a Spy, Robert Harris traces, in fictional form, the Dreyfus Affair through the eyes of Colonel Georges Picquart, who as head of the Army’s Statistical Section (a branch of military intelligence) revealed that the Army had convicted the wrong man and then fabricated evidence to cover its mistake. Picquart was the youngest colonel in the Army at that time and had a bright career ahead of him. However, his insistence that the Army right the wrong against Dreyfus pushed him out of favor with the General Staff, who moved him from the Statistical Section to a command of indigenous troops in Tunisia, then court martialed him, drumming him out of the army entirely. (He was rehabilitated, along with Dreyfus, and served as Minister of War from 1906–1909 under Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau.)

Harris is a lucid writer. An Officer and a Spy held my interest throughout, though I must admit that the book took its time building to the climax. In my opinion, the book is not as good a work as Fatherland, a counterfactual historical novel, in part because most readers already know the ending of the (real) story. Then again, if you don’t know the story, this is an excellent novelistic account of it.

If you found my review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my review page.