Next to Last Stand | Book Review


To be honest, I didn’t know what to expect from Next to Last Stand, Craig Johnson’s sixteenth novel featuring Walt Longmire, sheriff of (fictional) Absaroka County, Wyoming. The two previous novels—Depth of Winter and Land of Wolves—garnered polar opposite reactions from me: I hated the former and loved the latter. So, would I love or hate the newest installment in the Longmire series?

The book starts with the death of Charley Lee Stillwater, an African American veteran of World War II and the Korean War, who lived at the Veterans Home of Wyoming, which Longmire and his pals call by its old name, the Home for Soldiers and Sailors.

When the home’s administrator begins to process the items in Stillwater’s room, she discovers a Florsheim shoe box with $1 million in cash, an artist’s study for an unknown larger painting, and dozens of carefully annotated books about George Armstrong Custer, his “last stand” at Little Bighorn, and Cassilly Adams’ famous painting of the same. The original painting was destroyed in a fire in 1946, but it is well known due to the million or so copies printed and distributed to bars around the world by Anheuser-Busch.

The administrator calls in Longmire to figure things out, and the sheriff quickly realizes the obvious questions: Where did Stillwater get all this cash? How do the artist’s study and all the annotated books relate to one another? And is Stillwater’s death related to the answers of the first two questions?

As Longmire, his undersheriff and love interest Victoria “Vic” Moretti, and best friend Henry Standing Bear begin to look into things, a museum curator gets knocked out, the artist’s study disappears, Russian oligarchs make an appearance, along with a long lost heir, and Longmire starts to wonder whether that famous painting really burned up in the first place.

You’ll have to read the novel yourself to find out. As far as I’m concerned, this novel has everything that made me like the Longmire series in the first place. A smart sheriff in a small town solving believable crimes, all written up by a master stylist.

So, you could say I loved this novel. I hope Craig Johnson has at least one more Longmire novel in him. I know that Longmire is getting old and contemplating retirement, but there ought to be a sequel to Next to Last Stand. Right? I mean, the title of this novel all but demands one. I’ll be looking for it in the fall of 2021.

Book Reviewed
Craig Johnson, Next to Last Stand (New York: Viking, 2020).

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

The Better Way of Neighborly Love | Influence Podcast


“While the divisiveness of our current moment in the United States may be regrettable and fatiguing, it also represents an incredible opportunity for Christians,” writes Don Everts in the current issue of Influence magazine. He goes on to say, “As church leaders, our job is not only to help Christians recognize the temptations we’re facing, but also to highlight another way: a way of neighborly love that can cut through all the yelling and point others to the beauty of the gospel.”

I’m George P. Wood, executive editor of Influence magazine and your host. In this episode of the Influence Podcast, I’m talking to Everts about how Christians can be good neighbors in a divided culture. This conversation arises from his Influence cover story, “Neighboring for the Common Good,” which is based on his forthcoming book, The Hopeful Neighborhood, published by InterVarsity Press.

Don Everts is a writer for Lutheran Hour Ministries and associate pastor at Bonhomme Presbyterian Church in St. Louis, Missouri.

The Unspoken | Book Review


I learned about The Unspoken through Amazon First Reads. I have had good luck with other First Reads (especially Victoria Selman), and this novel looked interesting. So, here’s my evaluation:

The Unspoken by Ian K. Smith is a good-enough novel. It features Ashe Cayne, a former Chicago police detective, and an honest one at that, now a private investigator.

In this novel, Cayne is hired by the wife of one of Chicago’s wealthiest white businessmen to find their missing daughter. Along the way, a black acquaintance of the daughter is murdered, and Cayne believes the two cases are related. But the young black victim is nephew of one of Chicago’s most notorious gang lords, and the uncle wants revenge. Will Cayne find the girl and catch the killer before it’s too late?

On the whole, the main plot of this story worked for me. It wasn’t a great story–on the level of, say, Michael Connelly–but it was a page-turner, which is my primary rule for mystery novels. The one caveat I have about this book is the side plot involving a defrocked Catholic priest, which I thought was distracting and out of character for Ashe Cayne. If Cayne’s sideline righting old wrongs turns out to be a feature of forthcoming novels, I may skip them.

So, three stars for The Unspoken. It’s good read to while away the time.

Book Reviewed
Ian K. Smith, The Unspoken (Seattle, WA: Thomas and Mercer, 2020).

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

After COVID, What? | Influence Podcast


“With the massive disruptions we’re facing as a result of the COVID-19 crisis of 2020 and beyond, the problems could not be more disruptive or obvious,” writes Karl Vaters. “From the lockdowns, to the unspeakable pain of the illness and death of loved ones, to the colossal financial upheavals, it is likely that we’ve never faced such a long-term disruption in our lifetimes, possibly even surpassing those that resulted from the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.”

In this episode of the Influence Podcast, I’m talking to Karl Vaters about what churches—especially smaller churches—can do to recover from the massive disruptions of the COVID pandemic. I’m George P. Wood, executive editor of Influence magazine and your host.

Karl Vaters is teaching pastor at Cornerstone Christian Fellowship in Fountain Valley, California; a small-church leadership guru; and author of The Church Recovery Guide, published by Moody. (He’s also a longtime friend and fellow Assemblies of God minister.) He blogs regularly at KarlVaters.com.

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

The Auschwitz Detective | Book Review


The Auschwitz Detective is Jonathan Dunsky’s sixth murder mystery featuring Adam Lapid. (I reviewed the previous novels here, here, here, here, and here; along with a Lapid short story here.) Whereas those mysteries were set in Tel Aviv in the years immediately following Israel’s independence, for which Lapid fought, The Auschwitz Detective is set in July 1944 at Auschwitz-Birkenau, where Lapid, a Hungarian Jew, is a prisoner. It is, in my opinion, Dunsky’s best story so far.

Auschwitz was the chief murder factory of the Nazi regime, and it operated at peak killing efficiency from May–July 1944. Lapid arrived weeks before novel’s weeklong action begins, and his wife and two daughters were ripped from his arms upon arrival, then immediately gassed and cremated. Imminent death threatens Lapid and the other prisoners on every page, casting a pall of hopelessness and futility over the entire novel.

When Lapid learns that another inmate has been killed—not by the Nazis but by a fellow prisoner—his detective insights kick in, and he begins to work the case. (Before the Nazis overran Hungary, Lapid had served as a police officer.) It is the search for a murderous needle in the midst of a field of murderous haystacks, but Lapid’s sense of justice demands the mystery be solved.

It is in this quest that we find the humanity amidst Auschwitz’s bestial horrors. There are, in addition, friendship, love, and occasional moments of mercy in the story, They present glimmers of hope beyond the doom that we know is coming for the prisoners, though not, we know, for Adam Lapid. The Auschwitz Detective thus serves as a prequel to Dunsky’s previous stories, providing pathos and texture to Lapid’s personality and motivation.

I ask two basic questions when I evaluate murder mysteries: Did the story keep me turning pages to find out what happens next? And did the story push too hard against my willing suspension of disbelief? A yes and no answer, respectively, makes for a successful mystery. By that standard, The Auschwitz Detective succeeds wildly. I read it in one sitting, and its grim portrayal of life in that horrible concentration had the ring of authenticity.

So, five stars from me for Jonathan Dunsky’s latest Adam Lapid story, and I look forward to the next, which I understand is already in the works!

Book Reviewed
Jonathan Dunsky, The Auschwitz Detective (Self-published, 2020).

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

Taking Your Small Group to the Next Level | Influence Podcast


Small groups are a vital component of a church’s ministry. They extend the span of pastoral care, deepen group members’ spiritual formation, and provide a motivated cadre of volunteers for a church’s various ministries. At least that’s what they’re supposed to do. Too often, however, small groups get stuck in a rut, frustrating leaders and group members alike.

In this episode of the Influence Podcast, I’m talking to Jason Sniff about how to take your small group to the next level. I’m George P. Wood, executive editor of Influence magazine and your host.

Jason Sniff is small groups pastor at Eastview Christian Church in Normal, Illinois, and a licensed professional counselor with more than 15 years of experience developing healthy groups in private and public sectors. He is coauthor with Ryan Hartwig and Courtney Davis of Leading Small Groups That Thrive, recently published by Zondervan.

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

Understanding Spiritual Gifts | Book Review


Understanding Spiritual Gifts by Sam Storms describes itself as a “comprehensive guide” to the topic. Its author describes himself as “an Amillennial, Calvinistic, charismatic, credo-baptistic, complementarian, Christian Hedonist.” which helps you understand his theological and ecclesiological point of view (as well as affinity for John Piper!). He is founder of Enjoying God Ministries, senior pastor of Bridgeway Church  in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, and an erstwhile professor with a Ph.D. in intellectual history from the University of Texas at Dallas.

Storms has published four books and several articles on the topic of spiritual gifts, which he helpfully lists on pages xviii–xix, and from which he has adapted some of the material in Understanding Spiritual Gifts. The previous books include The Beginner’s Guide to Spiritual Gifts (2002, reprinted 2013), Convergence (2005), Practicing the Power(2017), and The Language of Heaven (2019). I have not read the earlier books, so I cannot how or to what extent this book draws on them.

Storms defines spiritual gifts this way:

A spiritual gift is when the Holy Spirit manifests his presence and imparts his power into and through individual believers to enable them to exceed the limitations of their finite humanity so that they might faithfully and effectively fulfill certain ministry tasks for the building up of the body of Christ (20).

The author divides his argument into six parts:

  1. The Nature, Purpose, and Prayerful Pursuit of Spiritual Gifts (1–66)
  2. The Debate over the Cessation or Continuation of Miraculous Gifts of the Spirit (67–146)
  3. Revelatory Gifts of the Spirit (147–202)
  4. Speaking in Tongues (203–238)
  5. Faith, Healing, and Miracles (239–278)
  6. Other Gifts and Apostleship (279–318)

As can be seen from these titles, Storms covers the topics that are a matter of sometimes heated debate between continuationists and cessationists, as well as among continuationists, that is, among believers who are Pentecostal, charismatic, and Third Wave.

Storms directs his strongest arguments against cessationism, though these arguments are always graciously expressed. He defines a cessationist as “someone who believes that certain spiritual gifts, typically those of a more overtly supernatural nature, ceased to be given by God to the church sometime late in the first century AD (or more gradually through the course of the next few centuries)” (69). By contrast, a continuationist is “a person who believes that all the gifts of the Spirit continue to be given by God and are therefore operative in the church today and should be prayed for and sought after” (69). He devotes an entire section of the book to refuting cessationism (69–145), but he maintains a running critique of cessationism throughout the book as he examines various biblical passages.

As a charismatic, Storms positions himself between classical Pentecostalism and the so-called Third Wave. He does not affirm Pentecostalism’s interpretation of baptism in the Holy Spirit as an experience separate from and subsequent to conversion, though he does not spend much time developing his critique of its doctrine either (47). Similarly, though he does not address the topic explicitly, it is apparent that he denies Pentecostalism’s understanding of tongues as initial physical evidence, even as he leaves open the possibility that God wants every believer to speak in tongues, if only as a private language of prayer. (225–231).

Storms cites the New Apostolic Reformation (NAR) as the context for discussing the debate regarding apostolic ministry. He writes, “I question whether there would be much of a controversy over the subject of apostleship were it not for the emergence of what is called the New Apostolic Reformation” (295). His treatment of the topic threads the needle between a cessationist denial of even the possibility of contemporary apostles on the one hand and NAR’s extravagant claims about its leaders apostolic giftedness on the other. Storms surveys the New Testament data, which points to a larger group of apostles than just The Twelve plus Paul, seeming to agree with Frank Chan’s definition of an apostles “remarkable leaders sent by God to establish new spheres of ministry by setting up the key governmental structures necessary for those ministries” (295). This definition is broad enough to encompass The Twelve plus Paul, others denominated “apostle” in the New Testament, and contemporary claimants as well.

I have drawn attention to how Storms distinguishes himself from cessationists, Pentecostals, and the Third Wave so that potential readers may understand where he is coming from theologically. However, aside from the extended debate with cessationism, Storms does not spend significant space on in-house continuationist debates. Rather, he works through the New Testament material patiently and thoroughly to arrive at a reasonable interpretation of what the various spiritual gifts are, what they’re for, how to seek them, and how to use them in individual and corporate contexts.

As a classical Pentecostal, I disagree with Storms’ dismissal of Pentecostalism’s doctrines of Spirit baptism and initial physical evidence. I also found his complementarianism irksome, arising as it did in a discussion of why Paul would permit women to prophesy but not to teach men (185–186), although thankfully this is the only reference to complementarianism in the book.

On the whole, however, I appreciated Storms’ exposition of the biblical material, along with his seasoned advice about how to use the gifts, and why. And his running critique of cessationism is worth the price of the book, which is quite reasonable for a text of this length. Whether you’re a pastor or a church member, I recommend Understanding Spirit Giftsas an addition to your library. You don’t have to agree with everything Storms writes to derive value from it

Book Reviewed
Sam Storms, Understanding Spiritual Gifts: A Comprehensive Guide  (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2020).

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

Grandstanding | Book Review


Justin Tosi and Brandon Warmke’s Grandstanding is a work of philosophy informed by psychology. Its authors evince no religious commitments one way or another, and they work from secular premises. So, you might wonder why I’m recommending their book in a magazine for Christian ministers.

The answer is that Grandstanding trains a searchlight on “the use and abuse of moral talk,” in the words of its subtitle. Moral talk is an intrinsic part of spiritual leadership. Proclaiming the moral excellency of Jesus and calling believers to imitate His example are among a Christian ministers’ most basic duties (e.g., Philippians 2:5; 1 Peter 2:21; 1 John 2:6). But with this duty comes a temptation to abuse moral talk.

For example, Jesus once told a parable about a Pharisee and a tax collector who went to the temple to pray (Luke 18:9–14). The Pharisee prayed, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people — robbers, evildoers, adulterers — or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.” The tax collector, on the other hand, prayed, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” According to Jesus, only the tax collector went home “justified before God.”

Tosi and Warmke would describe the Pharisee’s prayer as an example of grandstanding, that is, “the use of moral talk for self-promotion.” Grandstanding consists of two elements: “Recognition Desire” and “Grandstanding Expression.” In other words, grandstanders want “to impress others with their moral qualities,” the authors write, and they “try to satisfy that desire by saying something in public moral discourse.”

Grandstanding can take a number of forms. Tosi and Warmke identify five, which they term piling on, ramping up, trumping up, expressing strong emotions, and dismissiveness. The Pharisee’s prayer, for example, combines a strong emotion of disgust (toward lawbreakers and tax collectors) with an air of dismissiveness (as if the Pharisee’s righteousness were self-evident). All five forms of grandstanding are legion on social media, especially Twitter.

Interestingly, write Tosi and Warmke, “You don’t have to know you’re grandstanding in order to grandstand, nor do you have to say anything false.” Perhaps, like the Pharisee, you really think you’re that good and others that bad. And maybe the others actually are nasty pieces of work, while you’re an upstanding citizen by comparison. Regardless of whether you’re witting or wrong, however, you’re still grandstanding. Jesus criticized the Pharisee for exalting himself, after all — not for telling a lie.

But if grandstanding can be unwitting and truthful, what exactly is the problem? As moral philosophers, Tosi and Warmke draw on the three main streams of ethical theory — consequentialism, deontology, and virtue ethics — to describe what’s wrong with grandstanding. In a nutshell, they argue, grandstanding has social costs, it disrespects people, and it manifests a defect in moral character.

The social costs of grandstanding include “polarization, cynicism, and outrage exhaustion.” Grandstanding disrespects people “by using others to show how good the grandstander is, or by misleading others about how good the grandstander is.” And it manifests a defect in moral character because to be virtuous, “you must do the right thing for the right reasons.” A grandstander, however, is selfishly (that is, wrongly) motivated.

Tosi and Warmke conclude Grandstanding by suggesting several strategies, both personal and social, for reducing self-promoting moral talk. As the United States enters the home stretch of its presidential election season, these strategies are helpful, especially for spiritual leaders like you and me whose calling requires speaking prophetically — that is, morally — to the pressing issues of the day.

But let us make sure we speak with clean hands and a pure heart. “It is far less important to identify grandstanding in others,” Tosi and Warmke write, “than it is to know how to avoid it in ourselves.” Or, as Jesus put it, “first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye” (Matthew 7:5).

Only by doing so will we avoid the Pharisee’s temptation to abuse moral talk for selfish ends.

Book Reviewed
Justin Tosi and Brandon Warmke, Grandstanding: The Use and Abuse of Moral Talk (New York: Oxford University Press, 2020).

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

P.P.S. This review appears in the September/October 2020 issue of Influence magazine and is posted here with permission.

 

Why I Am Still Surprised by the Power of the Spirit | Book Review


Twenty-seven years ago, Jack Deere published Surprised by the Power of the Spirit, the story of how and why he stopped being a cessationist and started practicing a charismatic form of spirituality. Why I Am Still Surprised by the Power of the Spirit significantly revises and updates its predecessor. The revisions and updates make Still Surprised a substantially new book.

Surprised included 14 chapters, an epilogue, and three appendices. Still Surprised includes 26 chapters and five appendices. Entire chapters have been revised, deleted, and/or replaced. Deere explicitly divided the old book into three parts—roughly, his testimony, his critique of cessationism, and his advice about the practice of spiritual gifts. The new book largely follows this same organizational structure. Deere’s combination of memoir, critique of cessationism, biblical exposition, and seasoned advice about using spiritual gifts is written clearly and engagingly, reads smoothly, and made me think, even when I disagreed with it.

Cessationists—that is, people who believe certain “supernatural” spiritual gifts ceased after the apostles’ death—often argue that Pentecostals and charismatics put experience before Scripture. Deere’s conversion from cessationist to charismatic reversed that argument. “My thinking had not changed because I had seen a miracle or heard God speak to me in some sort of supernatural way. … This shift in my thinking was the result of a patient, exhaustive, intense study of the healings and miracles recorded in the Scriptures” (25).

In fact, Deere reverses the cessationist argument. “There is one basic reason why otherwise Bible-believing Christians do not believe in the miraculous gifts of the Spirit today. It is this: they have not seen them” (48). The lack of experience, rather than sound biblical argument, is wellspring of cessationism. Even so, throughout the book, Deere engages cessationists’ arguments, pointing out to the contrary that the Bible consistently and persistently teaches believers to expect and experience spiritual gifts.

Having shared his testimony and refuted cessationism, Deere goes on to offer advice about how to use the spiritual gifts, especially healing. Readers within the Pentecostal, charismatic, and Third Wave traditions will notice Deere weighing in on some of the intramural debates within our communities, such as the nature of and evidence for being filled with the Holy Spirit, whether certain gifts are resident within the believer, whether Christians can be demonized, and the nature of apostolic ministry.

As a classical Pentecostal, I didn’t agree with every jot and tittle of his biblical exposition or seasoned advice. The book is well worth reading, regardless of these disagreements. Deere is a trusted charismatic teacher and practitioner, and much of his advice is just good sense, avoiding the extremes of cessationist nonuse as well as hyper-charismatic abuse.

One final comment: Among Pentecostals, especially Pentecostal academics, there is an anxiety about evangelical influence on Pentecostalism. I understand that concern and agree with it in parts. Why I’m Still Surprised by the Power of the Holy Spirit serves as a standing reminder that influence goes both ways. When the Pentecostal revival began, cessationists held the commanding heights of evangelical institutions. Today, that is no longer the case, and those cessationists who still exist concede that Pentecostals and charismatics have contributed to the revival of Christianity in this century.

Book Reviewed

Jack Deere, Why I Am Still Surprised by the Power of the Spirit: Discovering How God Speaks and Heals Today (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2020).

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

The Socialist Temptation | Book Review


The phrase American exceptionalism emerged in the late 1920s in debates between American Communist Party members and their counterparts in the Soviet Union about why the United States did not seem to follow the general laws of Marxism or need a socialist revolution. Over time, the phrase took on additional meanings, but America’s hesitancy to embrace socialism persisted. In his January 23, 1996, State of the Union Address, Bill Clinton confidently proclaimed, “The era of big government is over.”

Fast forward a decade. The Great Recession that started in George W. Bush’s administration (and continued under Barack Obama’s) prompted lawmakers to legislate bank bailouts and regulation, as well as massive stimulus spending. The November 24, 2008, cover of TIME magazine featured Barack Obama photoshopped as FDR. Its headline read, “The New New Deal.” On its February 6 cover the following year, Newsweek’s headline proclaimed, “We’re All Socialists Now.” A year later, Obama signed into law the Affordable Care and Patient Protection Act (popularly called “Obamacare”), which massively increased the role (and costs) of the federal government in healthcare provision.

This all took place before 2016, when Bernie Sanders—a self-described democratic socialist—nearly became the Democrat party candidate for president. The same year saw the election of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—an ally of Sanders, and also a democratic socialist—to the U.S. House of Representatives, along with many other socialism-friendly politicos. In 2020, Joe Biden handily defeated Sanders in the Democrat presidential primaries, but the “Biden-Sanders Unity Task Force Recommendations” list heavily to the port side of the American political sea.

America may have been exceptional with regard to socialism a century ago, but it is no longer so today.

Socialism’s rise in popularity has been rapid. According to a 2019 survey by the libertarian Cato Institute, Democrats’ favorable feelings toward capitalism and socialism flip-flopped between 2010 and 2019, from 53% favoring capitalism in 2010 to 64% favoring socialism in 2019. Fully half of Democrats say Donald Trump’s presidency has made them like capitalism less.

For Iain Murray, socialism’s rise is alarming. It does not produce a fair society, threatens individual freedom, and eviscerates civil society. The Socialist Temptation, as he has titled his book, must be resisted.

But what precisely is socialism? That’s hard to say. The classic Marxist definition of socialism as “the workers’ ownership of the means of production, distribution, and exchange” seems too narrow. Contemporary socialists largely disavow Communist totalitarianism, opting instead for varying levels of state control of market economies, whether democratic socialism (Britain’s postwar Labour Party), social democracy (most western European nations), market socialism (countries in the former Yugoslavia), state capitalism (China), or radical environmentalism (European Green parties).

This definitional diversity means enterprising socialists can always deny that the socialism they dislike is really socialist. As a corollary, it means that they can rebut conservative descriptions of a given policy as “socialist” as a conflation of socialism (good!) and communism (bad!). Defining socialism is thus like nailing jello to a wall.

Murray eventually defines it as a sociopolitical regime “in which the individual is subject to control by the collective, to the determinations of bureaucrats, and to the expropriation of wealth.” Helpful as this definition is in identifying three core elements of socialism—collectivism, bureaucracy, expropriation— it still seems too broad. All democracies are majoritarian, all have bureaucracies, and all tax the populace for ostensibly public purposes. Perhaps socialism has to do with the weight, size, and scale of these elements?

Given the vagueness of socialism’s definition, what accounts for its persistence and popularity? In Murray’s words, “why is socialism so alluring to modern Americans?” To answer that question, he draws on a field of study called “Cultural Cognition,” which derives from the anthropologist Mary Douglas the sociologist Aaron Wildavsky. Cultural Cognition suggests “a relationship between the values we hold and how we perceive risk,” Murray writes. “As different political ideologies offer packages of solutions to risks, our values make those ideologies more or less attractive to us.”

According to Wildavsky, Americans fall into three basic value groups: “hierarchists” (whom Murray calls “traditionalists”), “egalitarians,” and “individualists.” They value “order and stability,” “fairness,” and “liberty” as their primary value, respectively. Note that these things are not their sole value. Each group values the other things, too. But these things are their primary value, the value that norms the others.

According to Arnold Kling, whom Murray cites, each of these value groups talks about politics differently. Traditionalists see political contest as occurring between “civilization and barbarism,” egalitarians as between “oppressors and oppressed,” and individualists as between “freedom and coercion.”

Socialism, obviously, is an egalitarian movement. Its class analysis of economic conflict fits the oppressor/oppressed mold Kling mentions. However, socialism has appeal—and makes arguments—beyond egalitarianism. The bulk of The Socialist Temptation is an outline of the cases for and against socialism couched in the three primary values and moral languages outlined above. So, Murray asks in successive parts of the book:

  • Can socialism deliver a fair society?
  • Can socialism free the individual?
  • Can socialism sustain communities?

Murray’s answer—unsurprisingly, given the title of his book—is no.

With regard to a fair society, Murray writes, “Where there is equality, it is often the equality of misery, and that misery is usually caused by oppression, violent or otherwise, inflicted in the name of equality.” This is a purple-prose way of stating the paradox of socialism: To the degree that a society centralizes decisions about production, distribution, and exchange in order to enrich people, it impoverishes people. The greater the centralization, the greater the poverty. Additionally, to the degree that a society centralizes decision-making, it empowers bureaucrats at the expense of the people. The greater the centralization, the greater the disempowerment.

With regard to a free society, Murray notes that socialists typically speak of freedom in positive terms, whereas classical liberals (today’s conservatives) speak of it in negative terms. Positive freedom is “the freedom to engage in the common government of the polity.” It correlates with positive rights, “the right to have something provided for you—the right to a job, for instance, or to welfare.” Negative freedom is “the freedom to be left alone, free from constraint.” It correlates with negative rights, “rights not to have something done to you. The right that the government won’t interfere with your speech or religion, for instance.”

If this seems somewhat abstract, just keep in mind the debate over Obamacare’s contraception mandate. It pitted women who claimed a positive right to employer-provided contraception against the negative right of religion-minded employers not to fund abortifacients. Both sides made an appeal to freedom, but what they each meant by freedom was very different.

Murray makes the argument for negative freedom and negative rights and concludes: “Socialists use the language of freedom, but a close examination of their aims reveals how hostile they are to the value of freedom.” By this, he means the value of freedom in advancing a socialist vision of equality. Free speech is for the oppressed, to equalize their situation against their oppressors. It is not for the oppressors, whose speech is called “hate speech” because it is oppressive, and whose “privileged” voices must be “canceled” or “deplatformed.” Consequently, Murray writes: “Where socialism allows freedom, it does so on the basis of dictating what you are allowed to do with that freedom.”

Finally, with regard to sustaining communities, socialism has an obvious appeal. It is, after all, about the social dimension of human existence, about our common life together. Socialism seems community-minded. Capitalism by contrast, or so socialists contend, is only about greedy individualists.

But that’s not quite right, is it? The question is not whether a society has a state, that is, the machinery of government. Nor is it about whether a society has a market: all societies have markets where goods and services are produced, distributed, and exchanged. The question, rather, is who decides. Under socialism, a society’s decisions are increasingly centralized in bureaucracies, often government bureaucracies. Under capitalism, those decisions are decentralized.

This doesn’t leave the individual standing powerless before the state, however, for civil society exists as a mediating institution between the individual and the state. In free societies—negatively free, with negative rights—civil society institutions are many and robust, from churches to softball leagues to the Rotary Club and (surprise!) even to labor unions. In socialist societies, there is a tendency to (wittingly or not) strip civil society of its powers and transfer them to the state. Private charity, for example, becomes public welfare, delivered with all the warmth only an impersonal bureaucracy can muster. In other words, in a socialist society, the state tends to coopt the institutions of civil society, which over the long haul, is not good for the flourishing of that society.

In summary, then, Iain Murray’s argument is that socialism doesn’t deliver on its promise of a fair or free society, nor does it sustain community in the most important sense. My guess is that some, like me, will find this argument persuasive, even if there are quibbles here and there. My guess is also that others are going to dispute this book at every point, arguing that Murray’s negative examples mischaracterize what real socialism requires or has accomplished.

Which brings us back to the all-important definitional question: What is socialism? My guess is that how you define it will largely determine your evaluation of this book.

Book Reviewed
Iain Murray, The Socialist Temptation (Washington, DC: Regnery Gateway, 2020).

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

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