The Prodigal Prophet | Book Review


If people know anything about the prophet Jonah, they know he was swallowed by a big fish. Consequently, because we live in an anti-miraculous age, people tend to dismiss Jonah’s story as just another fish story, the product of an ancient, credulous imagination. That dismissal is a shame, for the Book of Jonah tells a story with a timely message for people who live, as we do, in a moment of resurging nationalism.

The timeliness of that message is evident throughout The Prodigal Prophet by Timothy Keller. The book grew out of a series of expository sermons Keller preached at various times in his ministry. It reflects evangelicalism at its best: a biblical, Christ-centered, relevant call for conversion, not just in our spiritual lives, but in the totality of our lives.

We first meet Jonah in 2 Kings 14:25, which says that Jeroboam II, ruler of the northern kingdom of Israel, “restored the boundaries of Israel from Lebo Hamath to the Dead Sea, in accordance with the word of the LORD, the God of Israel, spoken through his servant Jonah son of Amittai, the prophet from Gath Hepher.” Although Jeroboam II “did evil in the eyes of the LORD” (verse 24), God kept covenant with His people (verses 26–27) and the territorial promises He had made to them. Jonah was the prophet of God’s promise-keeping.

Jeroboam II reigned from 792–751 B.C., a period during which the Assyrian Empire, which had earlier threatened Israel, had stagnated. After his death, however, it resurged and began to threaten Israel once again. In 722 B.C., it conquered Israel, brutalized its victims, and deported the population. Israel never recovered as a political entity. When we read the Book of Jonah, we need to keep the tension between Jonah’s prophecy of territorial expansion and the subsequent history of Israel’s destruction in mind, for it is key to understanding the book’s message.

It explains Jonah’s reluctance to take “the word of the Lord” (Jonah 1:1) to Nineveh, the capital city of Assyria. Though God instructed Jonah to “preach against” that “great city” (verse 2), Jonah knew that God’s judgment implicitly carried a promise of mercy to the repentant. “I knew that you were a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity” (4:2). As a patriot, the prophet didn’t want to see good come to his nation’s enemies. But God did, and so He asks Jonah (verse 11): “should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left?”

The tension between Jonah’s prophecy and Israel’s destruction also explains the book’s continuing relevance to us. The book ends without an answer from Jonah to God’s question. “The main purpose of God is to get Jonah to understand grace,” Keller writes. “The main purpose of the book of Jonah is to get us to understand grace.” Grace is God’s kindness and compassion to all people, not just our kindof people. Its ultimate embodiment was the incarnation of the Son of God, who died as the substitute for our sins and rose as the harbinger of our eternal life. When we understand this, it not only changes our hearts, but it changes the ways we relate to others. That is why God’s question at the end of Jonah is left unanswered. It is a question those who claim to follow God must answer anew in every generation.

The Prodigal Prophet makes for compelling reading. It explains the meaning of the Book of Jonah in its original context, but it draws out the implications of that meaning for our context. It shows the baleful ways Christians can worship ideological idols, misuse Scripture, and fail to love their neighbors as they should. But it also shows what a gospel-centered mission looks like, as well as how the gospel shapes our relationship with neighbors in our everyday lives. I’ll close this review with Keller’s penultimate paragraph, which itself ends with a question:

We live in a world fragmented into various “media bubbles,” in which you hear only news that confirms what you already believe. Anyone whose uses the internet and social media or who even watches most news channels today is being daily encouraged in a dozen ways to become like Jonah with regard to “those people over there.” Groups demonize and mock other groups. Each region of the country and political party finds reasons to despise the others. Christian believers today are being sucked into this maelstrom as much as, if not more than, anyone else. The Book of Jonah is a shot across the bow. God asks, how can we look at anyone — even those with deeply opposing beliefs and practices — with no compassion?

How you answer that question reveals what’s in your heart.

Book Reviewed
Timothy Keller, The Prodigal Prophet: Jonah and the Mystery of God’s Mercy (New York: Viking, 2018).

P.S. If you found this review helpful, please click “Helpful” on my Amazon.com review page.

P.P.S. This review is cross-posted from InfluenceMagazine.com with permission.

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The Well-Read Pastor | Influence Magazine


Pastors wear many hats in their congregations. On any given day, someone may ask them to explain a particular Bible verse or help mend a marriage or supervise an audit of the church’s finances. No wonder the average U.S. pastor buys four books a month, according to a 2013 Barna report! Pastors have a need to know.

Because reading is so important to ministry, pastors must think carefully about what and how they read. Over the years, I have developed 10 convictions about my own reading habits that may be helpful to you.

  1. Reading is a spiritual discipline. A spiritual discipline is any habitual activity that helps you become Christlike. Obviously, Bible reading is a spiritual discipline, but so is all reading. You are — or you become — what you read.
  2. What you read shapes how you lead. Reading also shapes your ministry. Practical leadership books do this directly, but other books do it indirectly. Great insights into leadership often come from unexpected sources.
  3. People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. The goal of pastoral reading is to become, and to lead, more like Christ. Being well-informed is important, but the Bible prioritizes love over mere intelligence. As Paul wrote, “Knowledge puffs up while love builds up” (1 Corinthians 8:1).
  4. Well-read is better than widely-read. Whenever I go to a bookstore, I think, So many books, so little time! Given limitations on your time and budget, prioritize reading classics over fads.
  5. Read both widely and deeply. This conviction stands in tension with the previous one, but it’s still true. Because you wear so many hats, you need to know a little about a lot. So read widely. But because you are leading your church to Christ, focus on core topics: Bible, theology, ethics, spiritual disciplines and church history. On those topics, read deeply.
  6. Read your friends, neighbors and strangers. For me, “friends” equals fellow Pentecostals. “Neighbors” means authors from non-Pentecostal Christian traditions, such as Calvinists or Methodists. “Strangers” refers to authors from non-Christian religious or non-religious backgrounds. Reading these groups helps you better understand both the breadth and the borderlines of Christianity.
  7. Old books often say it best. “Every age has its own outlook,” wrote C.S. Lewis. Including our own. That outlook isn’t true just because it’s contemporary or because it’s ours. The only way to test its truthfulness, Lewis went on, is to “keep the clean sea breeze of the ages blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books.”
  8. The best book is a shared book. If it’s good, it’s good enough to share with others. If it helped you, it will help them.
  9. It’s OK to read fiction. Fiction has been defined as “the lie that tells the truth.” The events it describes didn’t happen, but they nonetheless accurately depict the human condition. Perhaps that’s why psychologists have found a connection between reading fiction and empathy. The best novels help us understand others better.
  10. Above all, be homo unius libri — a man (or woman) of one Book. Your church needs you to be an expert on the Bible more than anything else. So, read many books, but read the Book most of all.

In the Introduction to his volume of sermons, John Wesley wrote: “[Christ] came from heaven; He hath written it down in a book. O give me that Book! At any price, give me the Book of God. I have it; here is knowledge enough for me. Let me be homo unius libri!”

May that be a well-read pastor’s prayer too!

This article originally appeared in the September/October 2018 edition of Influence magazine.

P.S. This article is cross-posted from InfluenceMagazine.com with permission.

Two Dozen (or So) Arguments for God | Influence Podcast


Publishers harvested a bumper crop of atheist book in 2006 and 2007. Letters to a Christian Nationby Sam Harris, The God Delusionby Richard Dawkins, Breaking the Spellby Daniel C. Dennett, and God Is (Not) Greatby Christopher Hitchens come readily to mind, among many others. Each of these book claimed in one way or another that belief in God was intellectually deficient, a matter of faith rather than reason.

The philosophers who contributed to Two Dozen (or So) Arguments for Godbeg to differ. They think there are good reasons to believe that God exists. In Episode 155 of the Influence Podcast, I talk to Jerry L. Walls about good  arguments for God.

Walls is Scholar in Residence and Professor of Philosophy at Houston Baptist University, as well as co-editor with Trent Dougherty of Two Dozen (or So) Arguments for God, which is published by Oxford University Press.

P.S. This is cross-posted from InfluenceMagazine.com with permission.

High Impact Teams | Book Review


Ministry is a team sport. Too often, however, ministry teams don’t play to their full potential. “The best teams are both healthy and high performing,” writes Lance Witt. “They focus on relationship and results.” To help ministry teams achieve their potential, Witt outlines a Christian approach to ownership, self-leadership, productivity, relationship, conflict resolution, and culture. If you’ve played on a high-impact ministry team, this book will explain why that team worked well. If you haven’t played on such a team, it will explainhowto up your team’s game. Either way, High Impact Teams is insightful and practical.

Book Reviewed
Lance Witt, High Impact Teams: Where Healthy Meets High Performance (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2018).

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

Christians in the Age of Outrage | Book Review


Google the word “outrage,” and this definition appears: “an extremely strong reaction of anger, shock, or indignation.” Not just anger, shock or indignation, mind you, but an “extremely strong reaction” of those things. Outrage is anger kicked up to 11.

Contemporary Americans live in the Age of Outrage. We are outraged by what those on the “other side” of just about any political, cultural or religious issue say and do, and we take to social media to “destroy” them. Not dialogue civilly, let alone rebut or refute, but destroy.

Outrage destroys.

In Christians in the Age of Outrage, Ed Stetzer shows “how to bring our best when the world is at its worst,” as the subtitle puts it. The book is a tract for our times, and its author is the right person to share it. Stetzer holds the Billy Graham Distinguished Chair of Church, Mission, and Evangelism at Wheaton College. Like Graham — known to many as “America’s Pastor” — Stetzer wants American evangelicals to be “unifying forces in American life,” bringing people together around the gospel. The purpose of his book is “to help Christians move from contributing to the age of outrage to effectively engaging it with the gospel.”

To accomplish that purpose, Stetzer looks at three broad topics. In Part 1, he examines “the two primary catalysts for our outrage”: “cultural forking” and “the technology discipleship gap.” Whereas American culture used to be nominally Christian, so that evangelicals found themselves in its mainstream, it is increasingly becoming post-Christian. Culture forked, in other words, and evangelicals now find themselves outside the mainstream. The new mainstream and the old mainstream eye each other distrustfully across the gap that divides them.

Social media exacerbates that distrust. Face-to-face encounters usually keep things civil, but online, you can abstract your opponents’ ideas from the totality of their lives and then reduce them to that abstraction. Social media use too often succeeds in reducing people to straw men and then providing the match to light those straw men on fire. This results in a vicious cycle of caricature, outrage, counter-caricature, counter-outrage, and so on and so forth.

In Part 2, Stetzer examines “four lies that reinforce and deepen our world’s anger.” They are:

  1. Christians are the worst!
  2. My outrage is righteous anger.
  3. _____ will save me from the outrage!
  4. Mission is optional.

Some of these are lies that post-Christian America tells about Christian America. The others are lies Christians tell themselves. These lies distort clear thinking and rationalize bad behavior.

Stetzer’s debunking of each of these lies is good, but I especially appreciated the distinction he drew between “righteous anger” and “outrage.” He writes:

Outrage exhibits few if any of the short- or long-term characteristics Scripture associates with righteous anger. Righteous anger is aimed at the glory of God,, but outrage is an angry reaction to personal injury or insult. Where righteous anger is purposeful and designed to advance specific objectives and ends, outrage exhibits little critical thought as to its underlying focus, motivations, expressions, or ends.

Outrage is motivated by a desire to punish or destroy rather than reconcile or refine. It is frequently accompanied by hubris and a confidence in its judgment, categorically rejecting any nuance. Outrage is fast and decisive rather than reflective, choosing to exhibit God’s retribution rather than reflect his persistent, steadfast love.

Yes, there are any number of sins and injustices in the world to be righteously angry about. Stetzer’s not denying this. But in the Bible, righteous anger is the prelude to repentance, reform and redemption. It is a means to a greater end. In our culture, outrage is its own reward.

The connection between righteous anger and redemption reminds us that God’s mission to redeem humanity is the purpose for which Christ came into the world. “For the Son of Man came to seek and save the lost” (Luke 19:10). When we let our anger get kicked up to 11, we forget that we are Christ’s ambassadors, carrying the message: “Be reconciled to God” (2 Corinthians 5:20). When we keep our mission in the forefront of our minds, however, a different strategy emerges.

Part 3 outlines “ways that Christians can counteract the outrage in their lives and this world by being intentional about developing a Christ-centered worldview, living as God’s ambassadors, loving others in a winsome way, and engaging thoughtfully with others, both online and face-to-face.” I like the way Stetzer summarizes the strategy this way: “Instead of Outrage, Engage.”

There’s so much wisdom in Stetzer’s recommendations that it’s hard to summarize them all. So, let me just highlight his “Principles of Digital Discipleship.” They are particularly helpful, especially given the outsized role that social media play in fomenting our culture of outrage. When online, Stetzer advises:

  1. Remember that everyone is watching.
  2. Choose investment over consumption.
  3. See people, not avatars.
  4. Make grace the default mode.
  5. Resist the urge to fight every battle.
  6. Value authority over freedom.

Regarding that last point, Stetzer writes: “Just because we cansay something doesn’t mean we should. There are ways of confronting abuses of power, and I am certainly not condoning a mindless obedience. But Christians need to understand that the best place for difficult conversations is usually not online.”

The vicious cycle of outrage and counter-outrage has got to stop, for the good of our culture and for the sake of the gospel. Christians need to demonstrate a better way. After all, if the Church is “the hermeneutic of the gospel,” as Lesslie Newbigin put it, then our unrighteous outrage may lead people away from God, giving Him a bad reputation in the process. You can be outraged or you can fulfill the Great Commission. You can’t do both.

In sum, I highly recommend both Christians in the Age of Outrage and its author. If you’d like to see how he deals online with controversial issues in a Christian manner, follow @EdStetzer on major social media. Or check out his blog at ChristianityToday.com.

Book Reviewed
Ed Stetzer, Christians in the Age of Outrage: How to Bring Our Best When the World Is At Its Worst (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale Momentum, 2018).

P.S. If my review helped you form an opinion of this book, please click “Helpful” on my Amazon review page.

P.P.S. This review is cross-posted from InfluenceMagazine.com with permission.

The Storm-Tossed Family | Book Review


After a years-long journey from foster care to adoption, my wife, son and I welcomed our two girls into their forever family on Friday, December 9, 2016. Family and friends crowded into the courtroom to witness the formal adoption ceremony. Afterward, we trooped over to our house for cake and presents for our daughters. Their adoption was a joyous event, well worth celebrating.

And yet, as is always the case with adoption, a tragedy lurked in the shadows. You cannot build an adoptive family unless a tragedy, neglect or abuse has broken the biological family first. And though our girls are young, they have memories of their bioparents, and thus an inchoate sense of loss.

The family makes us and breaks us. It is the source of celebrations and tragedies. Our highest joys and our deepest pains typically come from no place like home.

Commentators often speak of “the crisis of the family” when they talk about long-term, systemic changes to the nuclear family that have occurred over the past few generations. These changes include increased levels of nonmarital cohabitation and childbirth, high percentages of marriages ending in divorce, and the rise of nontraditional family structures. When I picked up Russell Moore’s The Storm-Tossed Family, I assumed it would be a polemic addressing the decline of family values in our nation and arguing for a return to those values.

As much as such a polemic may be needed, and as much as Moore would be the person to write it, that isn’t what this book is about. (Moore is president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, well-known for his thoughtful conservatism, both theological and political.) It is not about “the crisis of the family” in general as much as it is about “the crises in my own family” in particular, that is, the milestone events in a family’s life cycle, whether for good or bad.

More than that, it is a Christian account of those milestone events, one that interprets them through a cruciform hermeneutic, one that shows “how the Cross shapes the home,” as the book’s subtitle puts it. Three points stood out to me particularly.

First, family values are not ultimate. “The kingdom is first,” Moore writes; “the family is not.” This sounds radical, and it is, but what else should we make of Jesus’ teaching that His disciples must “hate” their family members (Luke 14:26). Moore rightly notes that hate here means “priority of affection” rather than “hostility or disrespect.” Still, the priority of the Kingdom reminds us that humans can turn any good thing into an idol, even the family. By contrast, he argues, if “we give up our suffocating grasp on our family — whether that’s our idyllic view of our family in the now, our nostalgia for the family of long ago, our scars from family wounds, or our worries for our family’s future — we are then free to be family, starting with our place in the new creation family of the church.”

Second, and building directly on the first point, family is more than the nuclear family. The focus of The Storm-Tossed Family is dad, mom and kids because that’s a fundamental building block of humanity. But the New Testament treats the Church itself as a family. It portrays the Church as the bride of Christ and also as a fellowship of adopted siblings who have one Father in heaven, for example. Regarding those outside the Church, those without a spouse or kids, Moore asks fellow Christians: “Will they hear from us the good news that Jesus invites them, and us, into a family we never could have imagined, a family united through not the blood in our veins but the blood shed from his?”

Third, family points to the gospel. “The family is one of the pictures of the gospel that God has embedded in the world around us,” Moore writes. “Through a really dark glass, we can see flashes in the family of something at the core of the universe itself, of the Fatherhood of God, of the communion of a people with one another.” A family’s joys point to the greater joys of the Kingdom. Its sorrows point them to the Cross, where Christ both suffered and saved. In the depths of misery, family members can look to Christ on the cross and know, “Oh, the Lord redeems all of that.”

The Lord redeeming the mess we have made of our families constitutes the bulk of Moore’s book. He discusses family milestones such as gender differences, marriage, sexuality, childbearing and adoption, parenting, divorce, trauma and aging. His words are wise, irenic and filled with astute theological insight, often expressed in memorable aphorisms. I’ll conclude with just such an aphorism, for it succinctly captures the theme of the entire book: “The only safe harbor for a storm-tossed family is a nail-scarred home.”

Book Reviewed
Russell Moore, The Storm-Tossed Family: How the Cross Reshapes the Home (Nashville: B&H Books, 2018).

P.S. If my review helped you form an opinion of the book, please click “Helpful” on my Amazon review page.

P.P.S. This review is cross-posted from InfluenceMagazine.com with permission.

The Hospitable Leader | Book Review


People don’t tend to link hospitality and leadership. Hospitality is for the home, leadership for the organization. Terry A. Smith thinks decoupling hospitality and leadership is a mistake. “A hospitable leader creates environments of welcome where moral leadership can more effectively influence an ever-expanding diversity of people.” Smith roots hospitable leadership in Jesus’ teaching and example, but he shows how it has wide application in the church as well as other contexts. “Our world needs leaders who, like Jesus, sit in the middle of a great celebration and invite people in.” The Hospitable Leader shows readers how to do just that.

Book Reviewed
Terry A. Smith, The Hospitable Leader: Create Environments Where People and Dreams Flourish (Bloomington, MN: Bethany House, 2018).

P.S. If my review helped you form an opinion of this book, please click “Helpful” on my Amazon.com review page.

P.P.S. This review is cross-posted with permission from InfluenceMagazine.com.

P.P.P.S. Check out my Influence Podcast with the Terry A. Smith.