Review of ‘The Less You Know, the Better You Sleep’ by David Satter


The-Less-You-Know-the-Better-You-SleepDavid Satter, The Less You Know, the Better You Sleep: Russia’s Road to Terror and Dictatorship Under Yeltsin and Putin (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2016).

“In the absence of justice,” asked Augustine in The City of God, “what is sovereignty but organized brigandage?” Organized brigandage is a good way to describe the Russian state that has emerged under the leadership of first Boris Yeltsin and now Vladimir Putin. Indeed, without mentioning Augustine, Satter describes Russian government as “banditry in the guise of a state.” The first five chapters of The Less You Know, the Better You Sleep provide the evidentiary basis for this claim.

Chapter 1 argues that Russia’s Federal Security Service—the FSB—organized the bombings of several apartment buildings in the fall of 1999 and blamed them on Chechen terrorists. This provided newly elected president Vladimir Putin justification to launch the second Russian war in Chechnya, a “patriotic” war that unified the country behind his leadership against “terrorism.” Satter’s case is circumstantial, but it is also strong.

Chapter 2 describes the “chaos and criminality” that permeated the Russian government, economy, and society during Boris Yeltsin’s tenure as president. Yeltsin had emerged as a popular reformer after the fall of the Soviet Union. The goal of his reforms was to ensure a “point of no return” for socialism. This entailed a rapid privatization of state industries and properties. Privatization sounds like a capitalist goal, but as Satter points out, “by carrying out the largest peaceful transfer of property in history without benefit of law, the reformers created the conditions for the criminalization of the whole country.” He goes on: “The new society that emerged had three outstanding characteristics: an economy dominated by a criminal oligarchy, an authoritarian political system, and, perhaps most important, a moral degradation that subverted all legal and ethical standards and made real civil society impossible.”

During the 1990s, the Russian people experienced a massive decline in wealth, health, and personal security, and their discontent endangered the Yeltsin regime. This sense of endangerment, Satter argues, explains why the FSB carried out the apartment bombings against its own people. The provocation helped focus the Russian people’s attention on an external enemy and presented the government of newly elected president Putin as their national savior. (Interestingly, one of Putin’s first acts was to grant Yeltsin, his family, and cronies immunity from prosecution.)

Chapter 3 picks up the story with the transfer of power of Yeltsin to Putin. Satter writes: “The creation and consolidation of the Putin-era system involved installing a vertical chain of command and eliminating alternative centers of power.” This “power vertical” coincided with rising Russian fortunes due to its revenue from oil and gas sales. When the economy is bad, people are more likely to pay attention to deficiencies in the regime. On the other hand, when it’s good, they’re less likely to do so. Rising wealth led many Russians to overlook Putin’s consolidation of power, or even justify it. (Interestingly, Putin’s personal wealth is estimated by some Western governments and media to approach $40 billion, carefully hidden, of course.)

Chapter 4 focuses on two hostage-taking incidents that demonstrated the “negligible value of human life” in the eyes of the Russian state. In October 2002, Chechen terrorists seized a theater in Moscow. In September 2004, they seized a school in Beslan. In both cases, they took a thousand or more hostages. And in both cases, the state responded with lethal violence, killing not only the terrorists but hundreds of the hostages too. Satter provides circumstantial evidence that “the government had a role in instigating the original attacks [of the terrorists].” Unfortunately, both hostage-taking incidents “were immensely helpful to Putin’s efforts to depict himself as a foe of terrorism and to legitimize the war in Chechnya to both Russia and the West.”

Chapter 5 deals with the Russian invasion of the Crimea and eastern Ukraine. In 2011, Putin, after a four-year hiatus as Russian prime minister, ran once again to be Russian president, successfully. Tens of thousands protested against his fraudulent election. At around the same time, Ukrainians took to the streets of Kiev to protest their own corrupt president, successfully driving him out of the country. Taking stock of what could be his fate, Putin decided to act and invaded Ukraine, conquering the Crimea and backing a faux independence movement in eastern Ukraine, where many ethnic Russians lived.

Chapter 6 turns from history to the future, asking what is Russia’s fate. Unfortunately, the answer is grim. “Russia faces a darkening future.” What is needed, Satter believes, is “a truth commission, like South Africa’s Commission on Truth and Reconciliation, that is able to examine dispassionately the crimes of postcommunist regimes and make then known to the Russian people.” Given the violence that Satter argues the Russian state has been willing so far to perpetrate against its own people to ensure its own survival, however, how likely is such a commission to come about?

The Less You Know, the Better You Sleep is a dark book, and for those raised in the West, a confounding one. How can a government be organized along the lines of such criminality? We Westerners, with our ideals of individual rights and good government have difficulty wrapping our minds around the kinds of things Satter reports. They don’t make sense to us; they’re not believable, which makes the task of understanding Russia complex.

“Understanding Russia is actually very easy,” Satter counters, “but one must teach oneself to do something that is very hard—to believe the unbelievable.” He goes on: “Once one accepts that the impossible is really possible, the degradation of the Yeltsin years and Vladimir Putin’s rise to power make perfect sense.”

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Review of ‘The Bible in America’ by Barna Group


The-Bible-in-AmericaBarna Group, The Bible in America: The Changing Landscape of Bible Perceptions and Engagement (Ventura, CA: Barna Group, 2016).

Barna Group’s new report, The Bible in America, contains good news and bad news.

First, the good news: “Americans hold the Bible in high regard.” Eighty-one percent of them consider it a “holy book.” Sixty-eight percent think it’s a “comprehensive guide to a meaningful life.” Fifty-one percent believe it has “too little” influence on American society. Among U.S. adults, 49 percent of men and 59 percent of women consider the Bible either the “actual word of God” or the “inspired word of God.” In both cases, they believe the Bible is inerrant.

Switching from beliefs about the Bible to engagement with it, Barna reports: “More than half of the U.S. population is engaged with or friendly toward the Bible. The term Bible engaged describes a person who “has a high view of Scripture and reads the Bible four or more times a week.” Seventeen percent of American adults fit this description. The term Bible friendly describes a person with “a high view of Scripture but who reads it less frequently.” Thirty-seven percent of Americans fit into this category.

Here’s the bad news, which Barna president David Kinnaman outlines in his introduction to the report:

  1. Increasing skepticism. More people have more questions about the origins, relevance and authority of the Bible.
  2. A new moral code. Self-fulfillment has become the cultural measure of what is good, setting up a conflict between society and the Church.
  3. Digital access. New tools and technologies are making the Bible—and everything else—more accessible than ever before.

Barna’s conclusions track with what other researchers are finding. For example, “increasing skepticism” correlates with what the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life describes as the “rise” of the “Nones,” i.e., adults who have no religious affiliation. Both increased skepticism and decreased religious affiliation are more noticeable in younger generations (e.g., Millennials) than in older generations.

Similarly, the “new moral code” of “self-fulfillment” tracks with what sociologist Christian Smith refers to as “moralistic therapeutic deism.” Americans, even younger Americans, believe in God. However, the god they believe in basically wants people to be nice (“moralistic”) and happy (“therapeutic”). In such a culture, Jesus’ statement about denying oneself, taking up one’s cross, and following Him (Matthew 16:24) doesn’t resonate with many.

Kinnaman doesn’t describe “digital access” as bad news. I do. Greater access to the Bible is indisputably good news. It’s the easy access to “everything else”—including skeptical information about the Bible and a media saturated with messages about self-fulfillment—that worries me. Perhaps we should say that digital access is ambivalent, good or bad depending on how it is used.

So, on the one hand, a majority of Americans hold high views of the Bible and are “engaged” with or “friendly” toward it. On the other hand, a rising number of them dispute its divine origins and/or don’t engage with it at all. This is the contemporary cultural context in which Christians live and serve.

Barna concludes its report with ten “insights to propel [readers] to prayer and action.” Let me cite just two.

First, priority should be given to reaching younger generations. “Without intervention, the future of Bible engagement is less bright than the past, and there is no clearer portrait of this reality than the Millennial generation. Although Millennials Christians continue to stoke a bright flame of passion for the Scriptures, their numbers are dwindling and their non-believing and non-practicing peers have put the Bible on a dusty shelf.” To prioritize their concerns requires taking their hard, skeptical questions seriously. It means showing how the Bible addresses their concerns—for justice, for example—in a meaningful, substantive way.

Second, “digital tools are tools, not magic bullets.” Too many churches and Christian leaders think they can reach younger generations with lights, sounds, and a digitally hip ambience to church. The problem with this line of thinking is that the club down the street has a better audiovisual setup. Applied to the Bible, yes, the available digital tools are amazing. But skeptics have good digital tools too. Churches should use digital tools—for worship and for Scripture study—wisely. But they should also remember that tools are just that: means to an end, a method for achieving a solution. They’re not the end or the solution themselves.

The Bible in America was commissioned by the American Bible Society and draws on what Kinnaman describes as “one of the largest sets of aggregate data [Barna] has ever collected on any single topic.” It’s an eye-opening, suggestive report, and if you’re a pastor or church leader, I recommend that you read it.

Check out my Influence Podcast interview with David Kinnaman on The Bible in America!

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

Review of ‘Grit’ by Angela Duckworth


GritAngela Duckworth, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance (New York: Scribner, 2016).

Every year, approximately 14,000 high school juniors apply to the United States Military Academy at West Point. Of these, about 4,000 secure the necessary nomination from a member of the U.S. House of Representatives or Senate or from the vice president. Of these, around 2,500 meet West Point’s standards for academics and physical fitness. Of these, only 1,200 are granted admission. And among these, approximately 20 percent drop out before graduation. In other words, only 7 percent of high school juniors who apply to West Point actually graduate from it.

Angela Duckworth cites these statistics at the outset of Grit in order to ask a simple question: Why do some people succeed? That question is relevant to military training, of course, but also to a host of other endeavors: business, education, athletics, entertainment, artistry, technical trades, etc. In any field of effort, some people rise to the top. What psychological factors explain their achievement?

A common answer is “genius,” which describes a knack or talent for something. We look at child prodigies and think, They will do great things. Success is simply in their nature. Angela Duckworth thinks the “genius” argument is not helpful. When we focus on natural talent, we begin to think that success in a given endeavor is pre-determined. And we overlook other factors that might be in play.

Duckworth is a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and a 2013 recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship—the so-called “genius grant.” Over the years, she has amassed a growing body of research to indicate that “grit” is more important than “genius” when it comes to determining success. Her book explains what grit is and why it matters (Part I), how to grow grit from the inside out (Part II), and how to grow grit from the outside in (Part III).

First, the definition: Grit is a “combination of passion and perseverance.” Duckworth writes: “no matter the domain, the highly successful had a kind of ferocious determination that played out in two ways. First, these exemplars were unusually resilient and hardworking. [That’s perseverance.] Second, they knew in a very, very deep way what it was they wanted. [That’s passion.] They not only had determination, they had direction” (emphasis in original).

In defining grit this way, Duckworth isn’t knocking the role of genius or talent. She’s simply putting it in a larger context. A genius may fail through lack of grit, whereas a non-genius might succeed through abundance of it. Indeed, her data indicates that grit is a better predictor of success than genius or talent. (The smartest and most physically able West Point applicants did not necessarily make it through to graduation, for example.)

A crucial tenet of grit theory is that grit can be developed. And if it can be developed, then greater levels of achievement can be earned. That brings us to the second part of Duckworth’s book: how to develop grit from the inside out. These chapters focus on the psychology of the would-be achiever. Gritty people have four key “psychological assets”:

  • Interest: “intrinsically enjoying what you do”
  • Practice: “the daily discipline of trying to do things better than we did yesterday”
  • Purpose: “the conviction that your work matters,” that it is “integrally connected to the well-being of others”
  • Hope: “the expectation that our efforts can improve our future”

Duckworth describes each of these assets using both anecdotes and data, and she offers practical advice for how to develop these assets personally.

The third section of Grit shows how passion and perseverance can be instilled in us through the example and advice of others. Here, Duckworth focuses on the roles that parents, teachers, extracurricular activities, and culture—corporate or team culture, not national culture—can play in growing gritty individuals. There’s sound, practical advice for leaders in these chapters. As a parent, I was particularly drawn to her advocacy of “wise parenting,” which strives to create an environment for children that is both supportive (“I love you”) and demanding (“You can do better”).

Although Grit examines the psychology of achievement from a secular point of view, I cannot help but think, as a minister, that it can shine some light on the ministries of the local church too. In the Pentecostal tradition, we often look for “calling” and “giftedness,” which are the spiritual analogs to “genius” and “talent.” There’s nothing wrong with this, of course, because God does call and gift people for ministry, whether ordained or lay.

The problem is, too often, we only look at those elements. So, we hire the charismatic preacher or the enthusiastic youth pastor or the worship pastor who’s a musical prodigy and are surprised when they crash and burn. Worse, we overlook the less-charismatic preacher or the slow-and-steady youth pastor or the worship pastor who has to work hard to get the song service ready because their “calling” and “giftedness” are less obvious at first glance. Perhaps what we need is a more thorough way of examining grittiness in ministerial candidates, of their passion for and perseverance in ministry over time. The slow burn is far stronger than a flash in the pan.

I thoroughly enjoyed and highly recommend Grit, whatever your context. As a husband, parent, minister, and PhD student, the book kept shining light on areas where I can cultivate greater passion and perseverance regarding long-term goals, and in the process, experience better results. I think you’ll find the book similarly illuminating.

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

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

Review of ‘Spiritual Persons, Gifts, and Churches’ by George M. Flattery


Spiritual-Persons-Gifts-ChurchesGeorge M. Flattery, Spiritual Persons, Gifts, and Churches: A Commentary on 1 Corinthians 12–14 (Springfield, MO: Network211, 2015).

First Corinthians 12–14 presents the apostle Paul’s most detailed description of and instructions about pneumatikōn, typically translated “spiritual gifts.” The contemporary Pentecostal movement has turned to this passage repeatedly both to defend the use of prophecy, tongues, and interpretation in its worship services against cessationist critics, as well as to order that use in those worship services against charismatic excesses. George M. Flattery’s commentary offers a clear survey of the relevant interpretive issues and is thus a welcome contribution to Pentecostal literature on Paul’s letter.

Three features stood out to me.

First, though Paul mentions Christ’s lordship explicitly only in 1 Corinthians 12:3, 5, Flattery reminds us of the Christ-centeredness of Paul’s practice and theology. “All matters spiritual, for the believing saints, center in Christ,” he writes. He goes on to point out the joint work of the Lord and the Spirit in the life of the believer: “By God’s design, Jesus is central to the story of salvation. Moreover, the presence and work of the Spirit in salvation is essential to our faith. We cannot be saved except by the work of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit lifts up and exalts Jesus as our Savior. The Holy Spirit indwells people who believe in Christ, and they are, in a basic sense, spiritual people.”

Pentecostals often refer to themselves as “Spirit-filled Christians,” and we are often caricatured by cessationist critics as being more interested in the Spirit than in Jesus. Flattery’s statements are a useful reminder that to be Spirit-filled is to be Jesus-centered, and to be Jesus-centered is to seek the presence of His Holy Spirit in our lives in ever greater measure. Indeed, for Christians, the spiritual life is the work of the entire Trinity (1 Corinthians 12:4–6).

Second, Flatter repeatedly draws out the logical progression of Paul’s argument over the course of these three chapters. Chapter 13, one of the Bible’s most famous passages, is often read at weddings as guidance for the bride and groom about how they should conduct their marriage—with love. What Paul wrote about love is, of course, universally applicable, but he himself wrote chapter 13 to explain how love supplies the motivation for the expression of the spiritual gifts. The diverse gifts (chapter 12), should be motivated by love (chapter 13), so that they are expressed in an orderly fashion in worship services for the edification of others (chapter 14).

The logic of Paul’s argument is always helpful to remember. We sometimes feel a tension between charisma and order. For many in our society—those described as “spiritual but not religious”—those two things are antithetical. Charisma is individual, organic, and spontaneous. Order is corporate, artificial, and belabored. Following Paul, Flattery reminds us that spirituality is both charismatic and orderly.

Spiritual churches consist of spiritual people who live and act in spiritual ways. Paul is especially concerned about the services in the church. He is concerned about the impact of what happens on the outsiders who visit the church. And, for the sake of the edification of the body, he is concerned that there be an orderly approach. He insists that speech be intelligible. Any utterance in tongues should be interpreted. Paul sees no conflict between order and the powerful presence and work of the Spirit. The Spirit must be allowed to work.

Rather than pitting the individual against body, the gift against the institution, the Spirit against order, Paul brings them together through love.

Third, though Pentecostals are often known as doers rather than thinkers, Flattery reminds us that Pentecostals should be thinkers too. His commentary on 1 Corinthians 12–14 carefully sifts through the various interpretive issues that Paul’s Greek presents readers. Flattery’s treatment of opposing points of view is fair and irenic. He declares on which side of an interpretive dispute he lands, but where possible, he shows how different interpretive options nonetheless arrive at the same destination by alternate routes. His treatment of Paul and Paul’s interpreters is patient, workmanlike, and kind. In this sense, Flattery’s personal example is a model for the Pentecostal scholar, pastor, and believer.

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

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[REVISED] Review of ‘Death Comes for the Deconstructionist’ by Daniel Taylor


Death-Comes-for-the-DeconstructionistDaniel Taylor, Death Comes for the Deconstructionist (Eugene, OR: Slant, 2014).

Daniel Taylor’s Death Comes for the Deconstructionist is a story about a man, a murder, and a movement.

The man is Jon Mote, grad school dropout (all but dissertation), soon-to-be ex-huband and researcher for hire who is asked to look into the death of his former dissertation director, Richard Pratt. The murder victim, Pratt, was a Deconstructionist literarature professor whose luster, once avant-garde, is already becoming passé. The movement is Deconstructionism, which is complex and hard to explain, but for the purposes of this book holds that words point only to other words, not a reality outside themselves. Assertions of inherent meaning are really, then, just power plays between groups. In killing off Richard Pratt, then, Daniel Taylor kills of Deconstructionism too.

Taylor is an insightful stylist. Any number of sentences caught my eye, but this one about Baptists made me laugh out loud: “But they were Swedish Baptists, not Texas Baptists, so even though they thought you were going to hell if you didn’t believe in Jesus, they at least felt bad about it.” There’s a lot of truth—about Baptists, Swedes, and Texans—wrapped up in that sentence. And it’s made by Mote, who’s recovering from his fundamentalist upbringing and narrates the story throughout.

The book contains interesting characters and descriptions of events. Though Mote narrates, his mentally handicapped older sister Judith steals the show. She is the counterpoint to Mote’s anguished internal dialogue and Pratt’s decadent sophistication. The description of her putting on her winter clothes is hilarious. The description of Mote’s breakdown in a black Pentecostal church down by the river is engrossing. The solution of Pratt’s murder has a Paul-de-Man quality to it, which you’ll understand if you know who that is. On the plus side, I didn’t see it coming until it was just climbing on top of me.

And that brings me to a criticism of the book. It is full of literary allusions, some of which Mote draws readers’ attention to. Many of which he doesn’t. If you’re familiar with the stories or with postmodern literary theory, you’ll understand a lot of Mote’s internal dialogue and the tensions between characters. If not, you may not appreciate this book as much. (If you don’t know who Paul de Man is, or if you know but don’t see why Pratt’s past feels like an allusion to de Man, this might not be the book for you either, which, by the way, does not mention de Man explicitly.)

That said, I still read Death Comes for the Deconstructionist in one sitting (give or take a few coffee and bathroom breaks). My number one test for murder stories is whether they keep me turning pages. This one did. I liked it a lot.

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

P.P.S. In an earlier version of this review, I criticized the book for a confusing chronology. The author kindly replied (see below), and I now realize the only confusion was mine. I’ve revised the review accordingly. Thanks, Mr. Taylor, for taking time to read my review!

Review of ‘Missional Church Planting’ by Ed Stetzer and Daniel Im


Missional-Church-PlantingEd Stetzer and Daniel Im, Planting Missional Churches: Your Guide to Starting Churches That Multiply, 2nd ed. (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2016).

Though I am neither a church planter nor the son of a church planter, I read the second edition of Planting Missional Churches by Ed Stetzer and Daniel Im with interest. Why? Because it raises questions and teaches ways of thinking about the answers that all North American church leaders need to consider in our increasingly post-Christian society.

The process of post-Christianization may be further along in Canada, but of late, the United States seems to be making up for lost time. According to the Pew Research Center, the number of Americans identifying themselves as Christians declined from 78.4 percent to 70.6 percent of the population between 2007 and 2014. In that same period, the number of Americans practicing non-Christian faiths grew by 25 percent, from 4.7 to 5.9 percent. The number of religiously unaffiliated Americans grew by 42 percent, from 16.1 to 22.8 percent. Given that 34 percent of “Older Millennials” (b. 1981–1989) and 36 percent of “Younger Millennials” (b. 1990–1996) are religiously unaffiliated, the trend of post-Christianization is going to gain rather than lose steam in the coming decade.

To counteract this trend, North American Christians need to plant missional churches.

Stetzer and Im define mission as “all that God is doing to bring the nations to himself.” They define missions as “the pursuit of sharing and showing the gospel to all corners of the earth,” that is, presenting the gospel in word and deed. Missional means “adopting the posture of a missionary, joining Jesus on mission, learning and adapting to the culture around you while remaining biblically sound” (emphasis in original). Missional churches, then, understand themselves as missionaries to their respective cultures.

The image of missions as “planting” is well known in the New Testament. It is found in Jesus’ parable of the sower (Matthew 13:1–9). Paul uses it in 1 Corinthians 3:6 when he writes, “ I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow.” Taken together, these two passages suggest that there should be a relationship between personal evangelism and church planting. A church plant that merely draws existing Christians from other churches is not acting missionally. Church plants should focus on evangelizing those who have not already heard or seen the gospel.

Planting Missional Churches outlines for readers how to do this. Section 1 addresses “The Foundations of Church Planting.” Section 2 outlines various “Models of Church Planting. Section 3, “Systems of Church Planting,” answers questions about systems and structures that should be in place before and immediately after a church plant launches. Section 4 describes “Ministry Areas for Church Planting,” namely, teambuilding, evangelism, small groups, worship, preaching, spiritual formation, and children. Finally, Section 5, “Multiplication and Movements,” shows how church plants can (and should) themselves plant churches.

Obviously, Planting Missional Churches is a manual for church planters. So, why should non-church planters like me and (maybe) you read it? I can think of three obvious reasons:

First, to familiarize yourself with the theory and best practices of church planting. Here, the goal is understanding. Far too often, existing churches and church plants are viewed as competitors. This competition can be turned to cooperation when you remember that the goal of church planting is to evangelize non-Christians.

Second, either to consider a call to become a church planter yourself or to help your existing church plant other churches. Here, the goal can be either a change in your ministerial vocation or an expansion of your church’s efforts to evangelize people in word and deed.

And third, as I suggested above, to better understand what ministry in an increasingly post-Christian society looks like. Here, the goal is to change the mindset of American church leaders so that they think more like pioneer missionaries rather than institutional chaplains. By nature, institutional chaplains have the support of the institution. They can assume certain things about people in their care. Pioneer missionaries can’t assume anything. They must listen and talk to people who do not know and in many cases do not care about the gospel story.

So, while I strongly recommend Planting Missional Churches to prospective church planters, I also think it might be a helpful read for established church pastors, whether or not they are considering planting a church. In an increasingly post-Christian society, all church leaders—whether pastors of church plants, revitalized churches, small churches, or megachurches—need to think and act like missionaries…for that is what we in fact are. Just as God sent Christ, so Christ is sending us (John 20:21).

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

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