Truth Doesn’t Have a Side | Book Review


On Saturday, September 28, 2002, Dr. Bennet Omalu began the autopsy of a 50-old white male. Case A02-5214 was straightforward. The man had died of a heart attack. His name was Mike Webster.

Perhaps I should say the Mike Webster: Pittsburgh Steeler, center to Terry Bradshaw, four-time Super Bowl champ. Though “Iron Mike” was adored as a football icon in Pittsburgh, he had fallen from grace after his career ended. Memory loss, depression and erratic behavior, coupled with addiction, left him — in Omalu’s words — “a bankrupt, divorced, homeless man living in his truck” at the time of his death.

A heart attack killed Mike Webster, but Omalu suspected that the radical changes in behavior were the result of brain damage. Outwardly, Webster’s brain looked normal. But when Omalu fixed it in formalin and examined the tissue under a microscope, he discovered massive damage at the cellular level. In a 2005 paper about Webster’s brain, Omalu gave the damage a name: chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) — “a bad brain associated with trauma over a long period of time.”

Just how much trauma had Mike Webster’s brain experienced? Over the course of his football career — high school, college, NFL — it has been estimated that he experienced the equivalent of 25,000 car accidents. Those collisions, often helmet to helmet, left an indelible mark on his brain.

“I believe God did not make human beings to play football, especially children.” ~Dr. Bennet Omalu

One would think that the discovery of CTE would have been welcomed by the National Football League (NFL). After all, if you know a problem exists, you can begin to prescribe a solution. And indeed, the NFL had begun investigating the problem of concussions among its players around the time.

Two years prior to the publication of Omalu’s first CTE paper, for example, the NFL’s Mild Traumatic Brain Injury (MTBI) Committee published a series of paper stating that concussions were rare in professional football and that better helmets could protect against them. Omalu’s first CTE paper implied that the brain trauma associated with high-contact sports was severe. (As Omalu autopsied the brains of other deceased NFL players, however, his repeated findings of CTE suggested that the severe brain damage was routine.) The NFL sent a letter to the journal that published Omalu’s 2005 paper, demanding that it be retracted. Privately, they trashed his reputation.

As late as 2016, Jerry Jones of the Dallas Cowboys stated, “We don’t have that knowledge and background and scientifically [sic], so there’s no way in the world to say you have a relationship relative to anything here. There’s no research. There’s no data.” Denial, it seems, is not just a river in Egypt.

For those not in denial, Omalu’s research, combined with the research of others, has established the reality of CTE. The damage is so bad that Omalu states, “I believe God did not make human beings to play football, especially children.” This is a radical stance, especially in America, a country that loves its “Friday night lights.” Omalu believes it is the only reasonable stance in light of the evidence he has uncovered, however.

So, why tell Omalu’s story in an article for a Christian leadership magazine? Because Omalu is a devout Christian, and his crusade against brain injury is an example of using one’s influence for the common good. Pastors and other congregational leaders need to remember that their discipleship efforts should prepare congregants for life in the secular world. Basically, Christian faith should make doctors better doctors. (And teachers better teachers, plumbers better plumbers, etc.)

Second, Omalu’s story is an example of prophetic influence. We often associate biblical prophecy with future events. It is that, of course. It is also an exposure of injustice and a call for repentance, however. Those injustices violate the shalom in which God created people to live. Omalu’s medical research forces us to ask a question: Should we be entertained by high contact sports that do such damage to those who play them professionally?

In the late fourth century, St. Telemachus wandered into a stadium and witnessed the violence of a gladiatorial contest. Running onto the stadium floor, he yelled, “In the name of Christ, stop!” Bennet Omalu is a modern-day Telemachus.

Should we be entertained by high contact sports that do such damage to those who play them professionally?

And that brings me to a third point: prophetic influence is costly. St. Telemachus, for example, was killed by enraged fans of the gladiatorial contest. Omalu’s detractors have questioned his credentials, cast aspersions on his findings, and trashed his reputation. Everyone wants to call out society’s injustices. Few are willing to pay the price.

Fourth, Omalu’s story shows the power of what he calls “conformational intelligence.” He defines the phrase this way: “a phenomenon whereby the way you think and perceive the world, including your sense of right and wrong and good and evil, are controlled, constrained, and constricted by the expectations, cultures, traditions, norms, and mores of the society around you without you even knowing it or being aware of it.” The biblical term for conformational intelligence is stronghold.

The reason why prophetic influence in society is costly is precisely because one is calling its strongholds into question. Professional football is a fan favorite and a big money maker. Calling that sport into question because of the damage it does to players’ brains exposes our national pastime as a national stronghold. No wonder the NFL went after Omalu.

And no wonder Omalu — an immigrant — was able to see through its conformational intelligence. As an outsider to American culture, he didn’t share our blind spots about football. If we’re going to exercise prophetic influence in our society, we need to develop an outsider perspective. Christians need to be in the world but not of the world, as Jesus said (John 17:16,18).

Truth Doesn’t Have a Side tells Dr. Bennet Omalu’s fascinating story. It’s not essential reading for Christian leaders; but for those with eyes to see, it’s an enlightening tale of influence used Christianly in the real world.

 

Book Reviewed:
Dr. Bennet Omalu with Mark Tabb, Truth Doesn’t Have a Side: My Alarming Discovery about the Danger of Contact Sports (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2017).

P.S. This review was written for InfluenceMagazine.com and appears here by permission.

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How Pentecost Came to Los Angeles | Book Review


Early Wednesday morning, April 18, 1906, a 7.8-magnitude earthquake struck the northern coast of California. It remains to this day the greatest natural disaster in that state’s history and one of the greatest in U.S. history. Approximately 3,000 lives were lost, and 80 percent of the structures in San Francisco were destroyed.

Nine days earlier and 400 miles south in Los Angeles, a spiritual earthquake took place whose tremors are still being felt. On April 9, William J. Seymour laid hands on Edward Lee and prayed for him. Lee began to speak in tongues. Soon after, others in their prayer group did the same. In time, the group moved from 214 N. Bonnie Brae St. to 312 Azusa Street. And thus was born the Azusa Street Revival.

The modern Pentecostal Revival has multiple origins, but its epicenter is Azusa Street. For three years (1906–1909), Azusa served as the center of a network of revival-minded radical evangelicals who longed to evangelize the world with the purity and power of New Testament Christianity. The Assemblies of God, founded eight years after Azusa began, can trace its own roots to what happened there.

Frank Bartleman was one of the first chroniclers of the revival. His book, How Pentecost Came to Los Angeles, has now been reprinted by the AG’s Gospel Publishing House as part of its new Azusa Street Series edited by Cecil M. Robeck Jr. and Darrin Rodgers. The text of the book is identical to Bartleman’s 1925 edition. What makes the GPH edition valuable is its 25-page introduction by Robeck and an index of names. Robeck is the nation’s premier historian of Azusa Street. (See his The Azusa Street Mission and Revival [Thomas Nelson, 2006] for a more in-depth treatment.)

Bartleman’s memoir is a must-read for anyone who wants to understand the character and history of early Pentecostalism. Bartleman doesn’t focus exclusively on Azusa Street, however. Rather, building on his own experiences as a faith evangelist, Bartleman portrays the precursors to and spread of the Pentecostal Revival throughout metropolitan Los Angeles. What emerges is a picture of a revival in which Azusa Street plays an important role — but by no means the only one.

Reading Bartleman’s account, two things stood out to me in particular. On the positive side, Frank Bartleman was a man of great faith, deep prayer and singular vision. He longed to see Christ’s church unified in love, and he opposed the prayerlessness, selfishness and over-attention to manmade doctrine and organization that stood in the way of unity.

My dad likes to say that your greatest strength is your greatest weakness. If that’s the case, then the flip side of Bartleman’s ideal was his never-ending criticism of churches that fell short of it. This included the Azusa Street Mission itself.

“The truth must be told,” Bartleman wrote. “‘Azusa’ began to fail the Lord also, early in her history.”

Why? Because, according to Bartleman, the mission erected a sign reading, “Apostolic Faith Mission.” He felt that this sign was a concession to “party spirit.” He also disliked worship services that weren’t totally spontaneous, as they had been at the start of the Azusa Street Revival. If Frank Bartleman were part of your church, my guess is that he would be a handful.

Even so, it’s the high ideal that shines best in How the Spirit Came to Los Angeles. Today, we long for revival in our churches. Bartleman’s testimony forces us to ask whether we’re praying enough, selfless enough and trusting God enough to move in our day as He did from 1906 to 1909 in the humbler sections of Los Angeles.

 

Book Reviewed:
Frank Bartleman, How Pentecost Came to Los Angeles: The Story Behind the Azusa Street Revival (Springfield, MO: Gospel Publishing House, 2017; orig. 1925).

P.S. This review originally appeared at InfluenceMagazine.com and appears here by permission.

Monday’s Influence Online Articles


Today, over at InfluenceMagazine.com:

  • Dave E. Cole writes “What the Church Can Learn from Harley-Davidson”: “Evangelism today must be more than an outreach program or big event. It takes place when every Christ follower accepts the personal command of Jesus to develop friendships with the unchurched, by loving our neighbors as we love ourselves. There is hope for the 65 percent of churches that are plateaued, as they reexamine the mission and engage in relationships with the unchurched. I want to challenge every Christ follower to make friends with the unchurched and live an outward-focused life.”
  • Alton Garrison shares “God’s Plan for Your Church”: “On the Day of Pentecost, the Lord Jesus Christ poured out the Holy Spirit on His disciples, empowering them to be witnesses for Him to the ends of the earth. Acts 2, which reports that initial outpouring, is not merely a historical precedent for Christians today but also a spiritual paradigm — a pattern of renewal and revival in every generation of the Church.”
  • Finally, we note a recent Gallup poll about denominational affiliation: “Americans are gravitating away from denominational church labels.”

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House of Spies | Book Review


House of Spies is set four months after the events depicted in The Black Widow. Washington DC is recovering from the worst terror attack on it since 9/11. The terrorist known as Saladin is still on the loose, however, and the intelligence services of the U.S., Britain, France, and Israel are frantically searching for him to prevent his next atrocity.

When Britain uncovers a loose thread in a criminal organization allied with Saladin, its chief of intelligence asks Gabriel Allon to pull it. The unraveling takes Gabriel and his team around the world in a non-stop, nail-biting quest to take out the terrorist. House of Spies is a page-turner whose fictional plot is scarily real.

A book like House of Spies can be read as a stand-alone novel, of course, but the bigger pay-off comes when you read it as part of the entire series. Indeed, the novel makes much more sense when you read it after its immediate predecessor, The Black Widow. I’m a huge fan of Daniel Silva, and I highly recommend this novel. It’s a measure of how good it is that I read the entire thing in two days.

 

Book Reviewed:
Daniel Silva, House of Spies (New York: Harper, 2017).

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

The Late Show | Book Review


When it comes to murder mysteries, Michael Connelly is my go-to author. If he writes it, I read it. So when I received notice that he was beginning a new series, starting with The Late Show, I pre-ordered the book months in advance and read it in a day once it arrived.

The Late Show introduces LAPD Detective Renée Ballard. Her star was rising in the Robbery Homicide Division (RHD) until a conflict with a superior officer got her busted down to working the night shift — the eponymous “late show” — in Hollywood. She used to investigate cases from beginning to end. Now, she rolls up on a night crimes and starts the paperwork, turning over the entire case to the day shift.

But when two victims — one a prostitute who (barely) survives a vicious beating and the other a waitress killed in a mass shooting event — cross her path the same night, she decides it’s time to follow the cases all the way through. It’s a high stakes gamble professionally, and it exposes her to grave dangers personally, but it’s a gamble she willingly takes.

Connelly is releasing his twentieth Harry Bosch novel, Two Kinds of Truth, this October. With Harry having reached retirement age, the Bosch Universe needs a fresh face. Renée Ballard is it, and if The Late Show is any indication, her stories are going to be very, very good.

 

Book Reviewed:
Michael Connelly, The Late Show (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2017).

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

Friday’s Influence Online Articles


Today, over at InfluenceMagazine.com:

  • Chris Railey continues his series, “A Team Approach to Teaching,” by focusing on who should be part of your teaching team. “Prioritize teamwork over talent,” he writes, “and you’ll find a group of people who fit well together.”
  • Jim Bradford encourages ministers to take a vacation in “Unstring the Bow”: “Taking a true vacation is, for some of us, an actual act of humility by which we surrender our sense of indispensability and trust God to take care of things for a while. It also confronts the human tendency to confuse our ‘self’ with our ‘work,’ an identity confusion that seriously depletes us over time.”
  • George O. Wood — aka, “Dad” — encourages us to “Leave Bad Enough Alone.” He offers this insight: “There’s an important difference between being at peace with all people in God’s sight and pleasing them according to their carnal natures. It’s usually the carnal nature that keeps unhappy people unhappy.” Then he concludes with some practical advice: “So stay on the positive, creative edge. Keep doing what God has called you to do. While He hasn’t called you to be insensitive or rude, God also hasn’t called you to pander to malcontents.”
  • Finally, we note a new Gallup report about American marijuana usage. The title of our note gives it away: “Nearly Half of Americans Have Tried Marijuana.” Joseph Batluck, president of Teen Challenge USA, offers this advice to Christians: ““The Christian’s perspective should always be to see God and live in a clear, efficient and impacting way. Distorting reality, through the use of chemicals, is not an option for those who belong to Christ.”

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Benjamin Franklin | Book Review


In 1787, the Constitutional Convention found itself bogged down over the issue of representation. Small states wanted equal representation in the national legislature. Large states wanted proportional representation. The dispute seemed irresolvable, and if it could not be resolved, the young American nation itself might not survive.

Benjamin Franklin — America’s gray eminence, Pennsylvania’s delegate — proposed to solve the impasse by means of daily prayer, reasoning this way:

I have lived, Sir, a long time, and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth — that God governs in the affairs of men. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without his notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without his aid? We have been assured, Sir, in the sacred writings, that “except the Lord build the house they labor in vain that build it.” I firmly believe this; and I also believe that without his concurring aid we shall succeed in this political building no better than the builders of Babel. We shall be divided by our little partial local interests; our projects will be confounded; and we ourselves shall become a reproach and by-word down to future ages.

Franklin’s proposal was defeated handily. “The Convention,” Franklin wrote, “except for three or four persons, thought prayers unnecessary.”

This episode, from near the end of Franklin’s life, reveals several things about Franklin’s mature religious beliefs, not to mention the influence of religion on the American founding. Like other Founding Fathers — George Washington especially comes to mind — Franklin believed that God providentially ordered world events, particularly the formation of the United States of America. His public rhetoric was shot through with biblical imagery. And he believed in the social usefulness of religion for republican government; hence, the call to prayer.

And yet, these mature religious beliefs, though sincere, were neither orthodox nor evangelical, a fact demonstrated in depth by Thomas S. Kidd in his recently published Benjamin Franklin: The Religious Life of a Founding Father. Franklin was born on January 17, 1706, in Boston to devout Puritans who raised him and his siblings in the doctrines of evangelical Calvinism. In his teenage years, under the influence of skeptical writings by Lord Shaftesbury and Anthony Collins, he left that faith and became, in his own words, “a thorough deist.”

Thomas S. Kidd helps us better understand Franklin’s faith, which as much as American evangelicals love Franklin, was not our own.

Unfortunately, the word deist conjures up the image of a clockmaker god who winds up the universe then leaves it alone. That does not accurately describe Franklin’s mature belief, however. Deists of that stripe, to point out the obvious, do not issue the kind of plea for prayers Franklin made at the Constitutional Convention.

“The key to understanding Franklin’s ambivalent religion,” Kidd writes, “is the contrast between the skepticism of his adult life and the indelible imprint of his childhood Calvinism.” To be sure, Franklin was skeptical of orthodox Christology (i.e., the Incarnation) and evangelical soteriology (i.e., justification by faith). He was consistent on these points throughout his adult life, though he expressed the scope and intensity of his skepticism at different times and in various ways. What mattered to him more than what one believed was how one lived.

This moralism was not atheism, however. Five weeks before he died, in a letter dated March 9, 1790, Franklin described his creed to Yale’s Ezra Stiles, an evangelical Christian, this way:

I believe in one God, Creator of the universe. That he governs it by his Providence. That he ought to be worshipped. That the most acceptable service we can render to him, is doing good to his other children. That the soul of man is immortal, and will be treated with justice in another life respecting its conduct in this.

Not nothing, religiously speaking, but not fully Christian either.

Franklin’s Calvinist rearing no doubt influenced his religious beliefs. Most obviously, it gave him a biblical idiom in which to express himself. Less obviously, warm relationships with evangelical Christians such as his sister Jane Mecom, evangelist George Whitefield, and others moderated his skeptical tone and made him appreciative of evangelicals’ good works. Throughout his life, these evangelicals pleaded with him to put his faith in Jesus, but at the end, all he would say is this: “I think the system of morals and his religion as he left them to us, the best the world ever saw, or is likely to see.” Again, not nothing, but not Christianity.

Franklin’s ambivalent religion points to an important truth about the role of religion in America’s founding. Many evangelical Christians think of America as a Christian nation founded on biblical principles. This is not a new belief, and it is not entirely wrong. From the start of the colonies at Jamestown and Plymouth Bay and all the way to the present day, America has been a nation of self-professed Christians. Protestant political theology exercised tremendous influence on the American colonists; the Bible suffused their public rhetoric, and established churches shaped their public piety. In the 19th century, due to waves of revival, evangelical Christianity became the de facto established religion of the new nation.

And yet, alongside this Christianity sits something less than Christian. Neither orthodox nor evangelical, we might call it non-doctrinaire, moralistic theism. It is a peculiarly American faith. Shaped by Christianity, but not Christian. Sounding like the Bible, but not biblical. This was Franklin’s faith, and the faith of other Founders too, such as Thomas Jefferson. When we query the role of religion in the American founding, we must take this non-doctrinaire, moralistic theism into account, for it was present and it was influential. This was the reason why, for example, in drafting the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson described God in generic terms — “Nature’s God”— rather than specifically biblical ones.

This truth about the role of religion in America’s founding generates two points of application for evangelical Christians, in my opinion. First, we must recognize that the American experiment is a joint venture, not a sole proprietorship. Yes, orthodox and evangelical Christians played an important role in the establishment of America. They did not play the only role, however.  Alongside them and sometimes in conflict with them, theists of a non-Christian variety exercised influence on the development of our nation. Benjamin Franklin is proof of that

(In fairness, the same reminder needs to be issued to skeptical Americans today who deny Christians a role in the Founding. Not only were they present and influential, but atheists played no role. Even the radically skeptical Thomas Paine argued for the necessity of belief in God, after all.)

Second, given the foregoing point, it behooves orthodox and evangelical Christians to be more mindful of political rhetoric. Invocations of God — whether in American history or at the present time — are not necessarily invocations of the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Too often, we read our Christian convictions into the theological pronouncements of the Founders, which means we misread them. By describing the religious life of Benjamin Franklin in detail over the course of his life, Thomas S. Kidd helps us better understand Franklin’s faith, which as much as American evangelicals love Franklin, was not our own.

 

Book Reviewed:
Thomas S. Kidd, Benjamin Franklin: The Religious Life of a Founding Father (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2017).

P.S. I wrote this review for InfluenceMagazine.com. It appears here by permission.

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