Review of ‘Augustine’s Confessions: Christian Guides to the Classics’ by Leland Ryken

Leland Ryken, Augustine’s Confessions, Christian Guides to the Classics (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2015). Paperback | Kindle

Augustine’s Confessions is a spiritual and literary classic. He began to write it in A.D. 397, ten years after his conversion to Christianity, when he was bishop of Hippo in Roman North Africa, partly to respond to his critics. Books 1–9 are largely autobiographical, while Books 10–13 include meditations on memory, time, and the Book of Genesis.

The book continues to fascinate and inspire readers, both scholars and laypeople, but it is not easy to read. Augustine mixes autobiographical reflections, biographical portraits of others, theological and philosophical arguments, psychological self-analysis, and biblical interpretation, among other things, in a continuous prayer to God. Modern readers who approach the book with contemporary autobiographical models in mind are likely to be confused and frustrated when they start reading it.

As part of a series of “Christian Guides to the Classics,” Leland Ryken has authored a literary introduction to Augustine’s Confessions that helped me prepare to reread the book, which I last read in college. After a brief overview of the book and its author, Ryken analyzes each of the Confessions’ thirteen books under the headings “Summary,” “Commentary,” and “For Reflection and Discussion.”

Ryken’s primary focus is on the literary qualities of the Confessions, so readers wanting a more detailed introduction to its theology and philosophy should look elsewhere. Evangelical readers, whether college students or otherwise, will appreciate Ryken’s positive evaluation of Augustine’s work, even as he criticizes aspects of the great saint’s theology. Readers may also want to check out Ryken’s A Christian Guide to the Classics, which I reviewed here. It provides a helpful introduction to what classics are and why they deserve to be read today.


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Review of ‘The Triumph of Faith’ by Rodney Stark

Triumph_of_Faith_350Rodney Stark, The Triumph of Faith: Why the World Is More Religious Than Ever (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2015). Hardcover | Kindle

Fifty years ago, Anthony F. C. Wallace expressed the belief of many Western intellectuals when he wrote, “Belief in supernatural powers is doomed to die out all over the world as a result of the increasing adequacy and diffusion of scientific knowledge…. The process is inevitable.” Scientific knowledge, it was thought, would lead to material wellbeing, and material wellbeing would lead to a secular society. For mid-century Western intellectuals, the future looked godless.

A funny thing happened on the way to secularity, however. As Rodney Stark writes in The Triumph of Faith, “The world is not merely as religious as it used to be. In important ways, it is much more intensely religious than ever before; indeed, it is far more churched” (emphasis added). To prove this point, Stark takes readers on a whirlwind tour of global religious trends.

Stark notes that secularization theorists “limit the focus [of their thesis] to major, well-organized faiths such as Christianity and Hinduism. Thus, five people who have ceased attending church and say they no longer believe in Jesus are counted in favor of the demise of the faith, despite the fact that they now are devoted spiritualists.” He goes on to carefully define terms:

  • Supernatural refers to forces or entities beyond or outside nature and having the capacity to suspend, alter, or ignore physical forces.”
  • Religion is a form of supernaturalism that postulates the existence of gods, conceived of as supernatural beings having consciousness and desires.”
  • Churched religions consist of relatively stable, organized congregations of lay members who acknowledge a specific religious creed.”
  • “A creed is a set of beliefs to which all members of a religious group are expected to assent, and those who participate in churched religions are expected to do so regularly and exclusively.”
  • “Both unchurched religions and unchurched supernaturalism lack organized congregations and usually lack a creed” (emphasis in original).

With these distinctions in mind, Stark is able to demonstrate, using survey data from the Gallup World Polls, that “a massive religious awakening is taking place around the world.” In many places, this religious awakening is occurring in the adherents of “churched religions.”. He points to the growth of Christianity in Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa, and China; of Islam in the Middle East and North Africa; and of Hinduism in India as examples of this trend.

In other places, it is occurring in the adherents of “unchurched religions” and “unchurched supernaturalisms,” which persist in Europe, Japan, and the Asian Tigers despite their modernization. The proliferation of spiritualities in these places is evidence, Stark thinks, of the truth of the statement often attributed to G. K. Chesterton: “When people stop believing in God, they don’t believe in nothing—they believe in anything.”

The United States has always proven a challenge to the secularization thesis. Though one of the first and wealthiest “modern” nations, Americans have long exhibited high degrees of churched religious behavior. In a series of studies over the last decade, the Pew Research Center has argued that the share of religiously unaffiliated Americans—the so-called “Nones”—is growing at the expense of religiously affiliated Americans. Stark dismisses this as evidence for secularization by pointing out that most of the Nones used to be nominal believers. They didn’t actually change their beliefs or practices, in other words. All they did was drop the religious name. Moreover, many of these people continue to pray, believe in supernatural forces, and even participate in organized religious activities. (Something similar could be said about “secular” Europeans.)

Throughout the book, Stark hints at the reasons why the world is more religious than ever, as his subtitle puts it. He points out that too often secularization theorists have assumed that “the primary social function of religion is to provide people with relief from their material misery.” Karl Marx articulated this so-called “deprivation theory” when he wrote that religion is “the sigh of the oppressed creature…the opium of the people.” Unfortunately, the data don’t bear out such a conclusion. “For more than fifty years, studies in the United States and other Western nations have consistently found that the lower classes are conspicuously absent from the churches on Sunday mornings. Moreover, the major religious movements that have erupted throughout the centuries, in both the East and the West, were generated not by the suffering masses but by dissatisfied elites.”

If not material deprivation, however, what? Stark suggests “spiritual deprivation.” He writes, “The overwhelming majority of people on earth do think about the meaning and purpose of life.” In the conclusion, he writes: “People want to know why the universe exists, not that it exists for no reason, and they don’t want their lives to be pointless. Only religion provides credible and satisfactory answers to their great existential questions. The most ardent wishes of the secularization faithful will never change that.”

By way of concluding evaluation, let me make two points:

First, Stark has identified a crucial flaw in both the secularization thesis and the deprivation thesis that underlies it. The data he cites don’t seem to support either. Supernaturalism and religion, in both their churched and unchurched varieties, haven’t gone away and don’t appear to be going away any time soon.

Second, for Christians, triumph of “faith” is not the same thing as the triumph of the Faith. What we seek is not the growth of generic faith, general spirituality, or non-Christian religions. Rather, we seek more people confessing Jesus Christ as Lord. That is happening, of course, but until Christ returns, we still have a mission to be witnesses for Him “to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).


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Review of ‘The Great Christ Comet’ by Colin R. Nicholl

Great_Christ_Comet_350Colin R. Nicholl, The Great Christ Comet: Revealing the True Star of Bethlehem (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2015). Hardcover | Kindle

This review originally appeared at

In The Great Christ Comet, Colin R. Nicholl argues that the Star of Bethlehem was not, in fact, a star. Instead, as the title suggests, it was a comet, “undeniably the single greatest comet in recorded history.” To reach this conclusion, Nicholl blends a close reading of the Bible with careful attention to the astronomical record. The result is one of the most intriguing books you will read this year.

Nicholl joins a long tradition of scholars who have written about Bethlehem’s star. Through the centuries, they have proposed a variety of answers to the question of its nature. Some have proposed that it was a star, of course. Others, the triple conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in Pisces in 7 B.C. Occultations of Jupiter in Aries in 6 B.C. is a more recent suggestion, as are either a nova or supernova. Meteors get mentioned. Some think it may have been a supernatural phenomenon such as a mystical vision or an angel. Skeptics dismiss it entirely as a myth.

By contrast, Nicholl affirms the historicity of the Gospel account of Jesus’ birth. He further argues that a comet can account for the star’s seemingly erratic behavior, appearing first in the eastern morning sky, then months later in the western and southern evening skies. Depending on the observer’s perspective, he points out, a comet can appear to stand still over a particular location as its speeds toward the nighttime horizon.

Nicholl does more than suggest that the Star of Bethlehem was a comet on grounds of biblical exegesis. Using up-to-date astronomy software, which is able to reconstruct the nighttime sky in the past and project it for the future, Nicholl runs the numbers and concludes that the Star of Bethlehem must have been a very particular kind of comet:

…a narrowly inclined, retrograde, long-period comet that, around the time of its close perihelion, rose heliacally and thereafter crossed the Sun-Earth line to be on the western and eventually the southern side of Earth.

Such a comet could account for the seemingly erratic behavior of Matthew’s star. In fact, its behavior was not erratic at all, but rather the predictable movement of an astronomical body along a predefined trajectory.

The question is, why would the Magi interpret such a comet as signifying “the one who has been born king of the Jews” (Matthew 2:2)? To answer that question, Nicholl turns to Revelation 12:1–5, a passage depicting a war in heaven between “a woman clothed with the sun” and “an enormous red dragon.” Commentators have long noted that this is a depiction of cosmic warfare between the devil and the woman’s offspring, that is, Jesus Christ (Revelation 2:5; cf. 2:26–27; 19:15; Psalm 2:9). Nicholl argues that it is also a memorial of the nighttime sky around the time of Jesus’ birth. In other words, it describes the alignment of the stars at a particular point in time, with the constellation Virgo being the semeion or “sign” of the “woman.”

I won’t recapitulate that entire argument here, interesting though it is. Instead, I will simply note that using Revelation 12:1 this way helps Nicholl arrive at a date: September 15, 6 BC. According to his astronomy software, on this date, “the Sun, making its way through Virgo, was located over her womb, while the Moon was under Virgo’s feet.” This was also the date of the Jewish New Year, which Babylonian astrologers would have known because of the Jewish diaspora in that region.

If a comet appeared in Virgo’s midsection or “womb” after this time, Babylonian astrologers might have interpreted it as the omen of a royal Judean birth. Nicholl writes:

…the Magi probably came to the conclusion that the great leader whose birth was being so dramatically announced in the heavens was the Messiah based on a number of key prophecies in the Hebrew Bible—particularly, Numbers 24:17; Isaiah 7:14; and 9:2. Together, these texts disclosed the identity, nature, destiny, and general location of the newborn.

Interestingly, according to Nicholl’s astronomical calculations, the comet would have descended below Virgo on October 20, 6 BC, suggesting the actual birth of the royal baby. At some point after this, he argues, the Magi left on their weeks-long journey to Judea. Matthew 2 records what happened when they arrived.

I cannot say that Nicholl’s cometary hypothesis has settled the question of the Star of Bethlehem’s nature once for all. Other than Matthew 2 (and possibly Revelation 12), extant historical records, which are admittedly spotty, make no reference to this comet. Nicholl’s use of Revelation 12 to establish a timeline is without doubt fascinating, but not the only — or even most obvious — way to read that passage. And the reconstruction of the comet’s duration, size, magnitude, and trajectory is conjecture, though a mathematically informed one.

Still, Nicholl has provided an intellectually rigorous account of the Bethlehem star that honors the historical accuracy of the Bible even as it uses complex scientific calculations to outline its hypothesis. The Great Christ Comet thus provides plenty of grist for the mill for people with interests or training in the Bible and astronomy, not to mention the relationship of faith and science. (His publisher, Crossway, is a well-known conservative evangelical company, and his theology is in line with theirs.) Plus, the book is beautifully printed, with excellent charts and graphs scattered throughout to illustrate the points of Nicholl’s argument.

In sum, The Great Christ Comet is a fascinating book, very well worth reading.


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Review of ‘City of Bones’ by Michael Connelly

City-of-bonesMichael Connelly, City of Bones (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 2002). Hardcover | Paperback | Kindle

City of Bones is the eighth installment in Michael Connelly’s series of novels featuring Los Angeles homicide detective Harry Bosch. It opens on New Years Day, when Bosch is called to a home in Laurel Canyon. A dog has found a bone, and its owner, a medical doctor, is certain that it’s human. Bosch begins to investigate and unearths the majority of a skeleton. Forensic examination reveals that the body belonged to a young male who had suffered physical abuse throughout his short life.

Within days, Bosch knows the name of the victim, Arthur Delacroix, and the year of his murder, 1980. But who killed him, and why? Connelly leads readers through Bosch’s 13-day investigation with storytelling skill, leading us down investigative rabbit trails, only to corner the killer in the last pages of the book. In addition to the identity of the killer, those 13 days uncover secrets that destroy lives and families and threaten to end Bosch’s career.

I was familiar with the plot of City of Bones before reading it. This book, along with Concrete Blonde, is the textual basis of the first season of Amazon’s Bosch series. The TV series took quite a few liberties with Concrete Blonde, but it hewed closely to the narrative of City of Bones, with a few, important exceptions. Still, it is a testament to Connelly’s storytelling skill that he captured my attention through the book despite the fact that I knew who the killer was all along.

I’ve reviewed a number of books in Connelly’s Harry Bosch series, together with books in his Mickey Halley and Terry McCaleb series. With one exception, I think each of them is well crafted and engaging. As a guy who likes to read mystery series featuring a lead character and returning cast of characters, I thoroughly enjoy Michael Connelly’s books and recommend them to people with similar tastes to mine.

Read the books in order, though. Each mystery is self-contained, but the character arc of Harry Bosch is worth making the time and effort to start from The Black Echo and work your way forward.


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Review of ‘The 4 Dimensions of Extraordinary Leadership’ by Jenni Catron

Extraordinary_Leadership_350Jenni Catron, The 4 Dimensions of Extraordinary Leadership: The Power of Leading from Your Heart, Soul, Mind, and Strength (Nashville: Nelson Books, 2015). Hardcover | Kindle

Jesus was once asked, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?” (Mark 12:28). His answer, known as the Great Commandment, was twofold: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength” and “Love your neighbor as yourself” (12:30, 31).

Jenni Catron uses the four dimensions of the Great Commandment to illuminate the nature of leadership and show how ordinary leaders can become extraordinary ones. “[W]hen I consider my life as a leader,” she writes, “it means leading with all of who I am for the benefit of God and others. Leadership requires all of me—my heart, my soul, my mind, and my strength. To not give all of me would be to shortchange God and others of what God has given me.”

She uses the four dimensions to define extraordinary leadership:

Extraordinary leadership is found in a leader who has searched to discover his or her authentic self and from that place influences others to accomplish great dreams through intentional relationships (heart), spiritual awareness (soul), wise counsel (mind), and relentless vision (strength).

Catron recognizes that most leaders operate naturally and best in one dimension more than the others. For example, relationships come more naturally to them than spirituality, counsel, or vision. What comes best to them lends authenticity to their leadership. There is a dark side to this, however. Pushed to an extreme, relationally oriented leaders ignore problems or delay taking action when they must operate out of the other three dimensions, which do not come to them naturally. (The same might be said of leaders for whom spirituality, counsel, and vision come naturally and best.)

Extraordinary leaders strive to grow in all four dimensions of leadership. Leadership, Catron reminds us, is a matter of both nature and nurture, both inherent gift and developed talent. Her book outlines how leaders can grow in each of the four dimensions and thus exercise a more holistic form of leadership.

Jenni Catron is part of the central leadership team at Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in Menlo Park, California. Given her professional expertise and the relative shortness of the book, The 4 Dimensions of Leadership is a good resource for leadership development in the local church, whether at the level of pastoral staff or lay leadership. Each chapter concludes with discussion questions, and the book includes a personal leadership assessment to help readers identify their most natural leadership dimension.

This article originally appeared at


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