Demanding Liberty | Book Review

When religious freedom makes the news these days, controversy follows hard on its heels. Many believe that such controversy is a recent thing, a deviation from the traditional American respect for the “sacred rights of conscience,” but even a passing acquaintance with American history exposes this belief as nostalgia. Religious freedom has always been controversial.

“Nothing teaches like experience,” wrote Isaac Backus in A History of New-England, “and what is true history but the experiences of those who have gone before us?”

Brandon J. O’Brien’s Demanding Liberty tells the story of Backus’s decades-long fight for religious liberty in America in the mid- to late-18th century. It is, O’Brien notes, an “interesting” story, but it is also “useful”: “Backus’s experience in a generation of change may have something helpful to teach us.”

Backus was born in Connecticut in 1724, five decades before America declared independence from Great Britain. He experienced “new birth” in 1741 amidst the Great Awakening sweeping through the 13 colonies. Ordained a Congregationalist minister in 1748, he eventually became a thoroughgoing Baptist. From 1751 on, he pastored the Baptist church in Middleborough, Massachusetts, championing both evangelical religion and religious freedom.

Baptists in colonial America faced persecution. With a few exceptions, the colonies had established denominations — Congregationalism in New England, Anglicanism in the South. Ministers in these denominations were supported by public monies generated by taxation. Baptists opposed state imposition of religious doctrine and practice, and they refused to pay taxes to support the clergy of churches to which they did not belong.

The establishment — in Massachusetts, literally called the “Standing Order” — viewed Baptists as theological deviants, as well as a threat to public order, and punished them accordingly with fines, jail and confiscation of property. Backus used his voice to promote religious freedom throughout the colonies, but especially in Massachusetts, which did not disestablish Congregationalism until 1833, nearly five decades after the ratification of the U.S. Constitution and the passage of the Bill of Rights, both of which Backus had championed publicly.

What lessons can we learn from Backus’s story? O’Brien closes the book by noting that “Christians in America are facing serious issues we were able to avoid just a couple of decades ago,” such as “questions about sexuality and gender, liberty and equality, race and ethnicity.” Moving forward, he asserts, will depend on “how well we understand our history, how willing we are to confess our past sins, how able we are to learn from our mistakes.” Even more, it will depend on self-perception as either the “marginalized victim” or the “established elite.”

In other words, going forward, will Christians be more like “Baptists” or more like the “Standing Order”? Will we be a force for moral reform and political freedom, or will we use governmental power to enforce a unitary vision on a pluralistic society? The outcome of today’s religious freedom controversies depends in no small part on how we answer those questions.

Book Reviewed
Brandon J. O’Brien, Demanding Liberty: An Untold Story of American Religious Freedom (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2018).

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

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

God Forgive Us for Being Women | Book Review

In 1924, Ruth and Elizabeth Weidman — my great-aunt and grandmother, respectively — sailed from the U.S. for China. Like many Pentecostal women, they felt God had called and empowered them to share the gospel as missionaries. Other Pentecostal women felt a similar call and empowerment to minister in the United States.

This call to ministry was part and parcel of their baptism in the Holy Spirit, an empowerment for service promised by Jesus Christ in Acts 1:8 and first realized on the Day of Pentecost in Acts 2:1–11. The apostle Peter interpreted the event of Pentecost as the fulfillment of God’s promise through the prophet Joel, “I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy… Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy” (Acts 2:17,18, emphasis added; cf. Joel 2:28,29).

These passages, especially alongside Galatians 3:28, seem to equalize the ministries of men and women. Yet Pentecostals also read passages from Paul’s letters — 1 Corinthians 14:34 and 1 Timothy 2:11–15, especially — that appear to order hierarchically men’s and women’s ministries. (I would argue that this hierarchy is more apparent than real.)

Thus, even as hundreds of early Pentecostal women pioneered mission fields and planted churches, they often met resistance from men (typically) who felt the need to put them in their place by limiting their authority in the local church. My friend Joy Qualls explores this tension — between Pentecostal empowerment and hierarchical resistance, especially in the Assemblies of God — in her new book, God Forgive Us for Being Women.

She takes the book’s title from the exasperated complaint of Mae Eleanor Frey, an early Pentecostal evangelist affiliated with the AG. From 1914 to 1935, the Fellowship debated what level of credentials women could hold. In a 1928 letter to a national executive, Frey wrote: “At this last Council I felt like a criminal as they brought up this foolish woman question again …. One felt like asking God to forgive us for being women. There is nothing in the word of God that forbids a woman from preaching the Gospel or conducting a work.”

Qualls is a lifelong AG adherent and professor of communications at Biola University in La Mirada, California. Her book, a revision of her doctoral dissertation, explores how the Fellowship negotiated the tension between the Pentecostal rhetoric of empowerment and the hierarchical rhetoric of authority.

In 1935, the General Council settled this debate, at least in principle, by affirming that God’s call and empowerment to all levels of ministry are equal for men and women. In practice, however, as Qualls shows, there remains a gap between what we believe and how we behave. Though women can receive ordination to all ministry levels by the denomination, they often find the doors to leadership in the local church locked because of their sex.

God Forgive Us for Being Women occasionally makes for difficult reading. This is partly because of the academic tone of the writing, but mostly because it’s heartbreaking to see the challenges women have faced in their efforts to pursue God’s call on their lives. Dr. Jim Bradford, former general secretary of the Assemblies of God, recently preached a sermon that included this exhortation to women in the congregation: “You should never be in a place where men are putting you in your place.” After reading this book, I fervently hope that I never become that kind of man nor the Assemblies of God that kind of Fellowship.

Book Reviewed
Joy E. A. Qualls, God Forgive Us for Being Women: Rhetoric, Theology, and the Role of Women in the Pentecostal Tradition (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2018).

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

P.P.S. This is cross-posted from with permission and will appear in the July-August 2018 print issue of Influence magazine.

Factfulness | Book Review

Factfulness begins with a pop quiz of thirteen questions about the state of the world. Each question has three possible answers, labeled A, B, and C. For example

  1. In the last 20 years, the proportion of the world population living in extreme poverty has…
  • A: almost doubled
  • B: remained more or less the same
  • C: almost halved

Hans Rosling has posed questions such as this to audiences worldwide for the last two decades. Invariably, audiences perform worse than chimpanzees randomly picking bananas marked A, B, and C. There’s a tendency to audiences’ bad performances, however. They tend to assume that things are getting worse in the world, when actually, things are getting better.

For example, the correct to question 3 above is C. In the last twenty years, the proportion of the world living in extreme poverty has almost halved. As a rule, if you select the most positive answer to Rosling’s questions, you’re likely to be correct. When we’re talking about trends in female education rates, life expectancy, deaths from natural disasters, infant vaccination, access to electricity, and the like, that’s good news.

So why do people think things are getting worse? Rosling and his coauthors finger ten instincts that mislead us.

  1. The Gap Instinct
  2. The Negativity Instinct
  3. The Straight Line Instinct
  4. The Fear Instinct
  5. The Size Instinct
  6. The Generalization Instinct
  7. The Destiny Instinct
  8. The Single Perspective Instinct
  9. The Blame Instinct
  10. The Urgency Instinct

These instincts can be useful in certain contexts, but they also have a tendency to mislead our thinking. Take the fear instinct, for example. Certainly there are things to be afraid of in life. But Rosling notes, “Our natural fears of violence, captivity, and contamination make us systematically overestimate these risks.” The way to overcome this instinct is to “calculate the risks.”

Rosling doesn’t deny that bad things happen, but he insists that “things can be both bad and better.” He is not some Panglossian optimist, in other words, thinking that this is the best of all possible worlds. Rather, based on facts about material improvement in the human condition, he is a “possibilist.”

I highly recommend reading Factfulness. Learning about material improvements to the human condition is exciting. But I also recommend it because it offers sound guidance about how to interpret the barrage of information presented to us daily. Knowing how to read, interpret, and filter out the noise in trends is a necessary component of a contemporary worldview, leading to better informed—and hence more productive—action.

Book Reviewed
Hans Rosling, with Ola Rosling and Anna Rosling Rönnlund, Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong about the World—and Why Things Are Better Than You Think (New York: Flatiron Books, 2018).

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

Self-Interest and Social Order in Classical Liberalism | Book Review

In this book, George H. Smith asks and answers a standard question raised by critics about classical liberalism or libertarianism: “How can justice be maintained in a society if most of its members lack the social virtues essential to a free society?” (emphasis in original).

The assumption underlying the critics’ question seems to be that if we act in our self-interest, as classical liberalism affirms, we will only act virtuously if “we deem voluntary interaction conducive to our own ends” or if “we fear the legal consequences of aggression.” According to the critics’ assumption, classical liberalism is little more than “atomized individualism.”

Smith refutes this assumption by surveying the arguments of classical liberal philosophers in the English tradition, such as David Hume, Joseph Butler, Frances Hutcheson, and Adam Smith. These writers affirm the self-interested character of human action but deny that its motivation can be reduced to “psychological egoism,” which they called “the selfish system.” They also affirm other motivations for human action, including benevolence.

The distinction between self-interest and psychological egoism, together with the recognition of other motivators for human action, means that classical liberalism can explain the fundamental drive for social order without reference to the supervening hand of the state. This doesn’t mean that the state plays no role, of course. In classical liberalism, the state’s most fundamental role is to “enforce the rules of justice.” What classical liberalism calls into question is the notion that the state need to do more than enforce justice in order to promulgate social order. According to classical liberalism individuals and civil society have sufficient resources apart from the state to do that.

Self-Interest and Social Order in Classical Liberalism is a short but valuable read in the history of classical liberal ideas.

Book Reviewed
George H. Smith, Self-Interest and Social Order in Classical Liberalism (Washington DC: Cato Institute, 2017).

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

How to Be a Perfect Christian by The Babylon Bee | Book Review

Rarely a week goes by that I don’t share a Babylon Bee story on Facebook. The Bee bills itself as “Your Trusted Source For Christian News Satire.” Given how often unaware readers mistake its stories for real news, I’m not sure trusted is the right word. But satire? Absolutely!

Here are some samples. From pop culture: “Reeling From Yet Another Unnecessary Film, Fans Call For Common-Sense Star Wars Control.” From church life: “Church Ushers Rough Up First-Time Visitor Trying To Escape Without Filling Out Connection Card.” From politics: “Fox News Slams Jesus For Never Once Standing During National Anthem.” The Bee skewers everything, earning a hearty #Heh in all my Facebook posts.

My #Heh is slightly less hearty for The Babylon Bee’s new book, How to Be a Perfect Christian. Don’t get me wrong, hilarious sendups of American evangelical culture occur throughout the book. One example of such is the C.H.A.F.F. acronym for “high-quality spiritual pictures of your open Bible”:

  • C = Coffee: “True Christians study the Word of God with a mug of artisan, fair-trade, non-GMO, gluten-free, cage-free, nonalcoholic coffee.”
  • H = Hashtags: “We recommend hashtags like #blessed, #amen, #holy, #iambetterthanyou, and #lookeveryoneimreadingmyBible to ensure your personal time of communion with God through His Word goes viral.”
  • A = Audience: “Don’t forget that you’re doing this for an audience of one million.”
  • F = Filter: “A plain-Jane picture of an open Bible never got anyone on the express lane to heaven … . Apply an authentic vintage look, and you can be sure you’ll get a like from Jesus Himself.”
  • F = Fact: “As in the size of your Bible … . Weather your Bible before the shot, too, to give it a worn, distressed look.”

After reading C.H.A.F.F., I’ll never look at my friends’ Instagram devotional pics the same way. (And perhaps, just perhaps, my friends will stop posting those pics in the first place.)

Like all good satire, there is a serious purpose behind the skewering. How to Be mock-seriously defines a “perfect Christian” as “one who conforms to the man-made standards of the Christian faith in any given age.” Chapters then go on to spell out those standards in detail. The satire works largely works because it addresses real hypocrisies and flaws in American evangelicalism. By humorously skewering fake Christianity, real Christianity stands out sharper by contrast.

So, why my less than hearty #Heh? Two reasons: First, satire is easier to write and read in short spurts. The Babylon Bee’s online articles hit the mark harder, in my opinion, precisely because you can read them quickly and walk away. It’s harder to attain a satirical tone over the course of an entire book, even a short book. Normally, I read books in two or three extended sessions. With How to Be a Perfect Christian, however, I found myself picking up and putting down the book after short spells. The soul can only take satire for so long.

Second, American evangelicalism presents too many targets. Some evangelical churches are light on doctrine but heavy on “cool.” Others are heavy on doctrine but light on contemporary relevance. (These are only two extremes among a multitude of options.) The problem is that you can’t satirize the one the same way you satirize the other. At times, however, it seemed to me that The Bee was trying to have it both ways.

Consequently, four stars instead of five for this reviewer. The book is a good #Heh, even if not a hearty one.

Book Reviewed
The Babylon Bee, How to Be a Perfect Christian: Your Comprehensive Guide to Flawless Spiritual Living (Colorado Springs, CO: Multnomah, 2018).

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

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

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