Solzhenitsyn: A Soul in Exile | Book Review


The centennial of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s birth passed in 2018 with surprisingly little fanfare. Perhaps this reflects contemporary culture’s obsession with the present and forgetfulness regarding the past. Perhaps it reflects elite ambivalence about the author, whose critique of Soviet crimes was accepted but whose critique of Western moral relativism was rejected.

Whatever the reason Solzhenitsyn’s centennial was largely passed over, I decided on December 11, 2018—his one hundredth birthday—to reacquaint myself with the man and his writings in 2019. My first stop was the revised and updated edition of Joseph Pearce’s Solzhenitsyn: A Soul in Exile. The first edition was published in 1999 after Solzhenitsyn turned eighty. This edition appeared in 2011, three years after his death.

Unlike other Solzhenitsyn scholars, Pearce does not speak or read Russian. His biography is therefore dependent on other scholars who do, such as Michael Scammel’s 1985 Solzhenitsyn: A Biography, and English translations of Solzhenitsyn’s work by various scholars. The core of Pearce’s original research is his extended interview with the author in Moscow in 1998, which was simultaneously translated by Solzhenitsyn’s son Yermolai. Insights from this interview are scattered throughout the book.

Despite Pearce’s dependence on other Russian-literate scholars, I found Pearce’s biography helpful for three basic reasons. First, it summarized the events of Solzhenitsyn’s life from birth to death. As far as I can tell, this is the only English-language biography to do so currently in print. That in and of itself is helpful.

Second, it highlights the spiritual and moral vision at the core of Solzhenitsyn’s literary output. This vision runs through the center of Solzhenitsyn’s critique of Soviet crimes, of Western moral relativism, and of political and social developments in post-Soviet Russia. To understand Solzhenitsyn, Pearce argues, one must understand his Russian Orthodox faith. Pearce demonstrates how that worldview shaped Solzhenitsyn’s views on history, society, politics, and economics.

Third, Pearce shines a sympathetic light on the controversies that began to engulf Solzhenitsyn once he was exiled from the Soviet Union in 1974, controversies that dog his reputation to the present day. While praising Solzhenitsyn’s pre-exile dissidence, Western authors—and some Russian authors—continue to portray Solzhenitsyn as illiberal, authoritarian, nationalistic, and anti-Semitic. Pearce makes a strong case that these portraits misinterpret Solzhenitsyn.

For me, the key test of a biography is twofold: Did it get its facts straight, and did it make me more interested in the subject as a result of reading it. By that test, Solzhenitsyn: A Soul in Exile succeeds. Next up for me: A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Solzhenitsyn’s first book, the one that established his literary reputation.

Book Reviewed
Joseph Pearce, Solzhenitsyn: A Soul in Exile, rev. and updated ed. (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2011).

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

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In This World of Wonders | Book Review


Memoirs by philosophers typically don’t garner wide readership, but Nicholas Wolterstorff’s In This World of Wonders should. It records vignettes from the life of a leading Christian philosopher who has made scholarly contributions to the fields of metaphysics, epistemology, aesthetics, and ethics, among others. His Lament for a Son, written after the death of his son in a climbing accident, has helped many Christians journey through grief and is a spiritual classic.

I became aware of Wolterstorff in college when, as a philosophy student, I was introduced to the “Reformed epistemology” that he, Alvin Plantinga, and William P. Alston pioneered. Wolterstorff recounts the origins of that epistemology here, and provides a short introduction to its basic thesis, but he also shines a light on the development of his thinking in aesthetics and ethics. Given his interest in the former, it’s a good thing that Eerdman’s layout of this book was so well done. It’s always a pleasure to read a book where the beauty of the writing is matched by the beauty of the presentation.

For many years, Wolterstorff worried that his interests in different fields of philosophy had no unifying core. But he came to realize that the biblical concept of shalom, which he translates as “flourishing,” in fact integrated his interests. God created this world so that its creatures would flourish. This world-affirming theology, an outgrowth of a Reformed worldview, has guided Wolterstorff’s thinking over the course of a long, productive career at Calvin College, Yale University, and the University of Virginia.

Philosophically minded folk who have read Wolterstorff will be interested in this memoir, but I also think it presents a model of Christian scholarship—both implicitly and explicitly—that will commend the book to professors in other disciplines too.

in-this-world-of-wondersBook Reviewed
Nicholas Wolterstorff, In This World of Wonders: Memoir of a Life in Learning (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2019).

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

Help! I’m in Charge | Influence Podcast


 

“If you want to make a difference,” writes Rod Loy, “if you want to fulfill God’s calling for your life, if you want to be a leader, you have to be willing to pay the price. This is the difference between changing the world and living your life without impact.”

In Episode 165 of the Influence Podcast, I’m talking to Rod Loy about this and other leadership insights from his new book, Help! I’m in Charge.

Rod Loy is senior pastor of First Assembly of God in North Little Rock, Arkansas, and executive presbyter for the General Council of the Assemblies of God. In addition to Help! I’m in Charge, he’s the author of Immediate Obedience, 3 Questions, and After the Honeymoon, all of which are available in both English and Spanish.

I’m George P. Wood, executive editor of Influence magazine and your host.

Can We Trust the Gospels? | Book Review


“Faith is the great cop-out, the great excuse to evade the need to think and evaluate evidence,” argues the atheist Richard Dawkins. “Faith is belief in spite of, even perhaps because of, the lack of evidence.”

Like many of Dawkins’ quips, this one is catchy but inaccurate. Christians do not define faith that way. As Peter J. Williams notes in the Introduction to Can We Trust the Gospels?: “Coming from the Latin word fides, the word faithused to mean something closer to our word trust. Trust, of course, can be based on evidence.” Williams goes on to draw several lines of evidence that point to the Gospels’ historical reliability. It is written as an introductory text for a broad audience.

Those lines of evidence include what early non-Christian sources reveal about Jesus Christ and His followers (chapter 1), the sources and dates of the Gospels (chapter 2), accurate names for places and people (chapter 3), undesigned coincidences between the Gospels (chapter 4), the reliability of oral transmission of Jesus’ teachings (chapter 5), the reliability of textual transmission of the Gospels (chapter 6), how to account for apparent contradictions (chapter 7), and evidence for miracles (chapter 8).

In my opinion, chapter 3 — titled, “Did the Gospel Authors Know Their Stuff?” — is the strongest chapter. It argues that the evangelists “display familiarity with the time and places they wrote about” in terms of geography, personal names and other first-century details.

Take personal names, for example. Williams writes: “A series of scholarly studies has shown that, though Jews were located in many places in the Roman Empire, the different locations had rather distinct naming patterns, and the popularity of various names among Jews outside Palestine bore little relationship to those inside Palestine.” The statistical distribution of personal names in the Gospels tracks with the distribution of names in Palestine, but not outside of it. This suggests that the names reflect historical people, because “someone living in another part of the Roman Empire would not simply be able to think of Jewish names familiar to him and put them into a story.”

The weakest chapter is chapter 7, “What about Contradictions?” Williams identifies six formal contradictions within the Gospel of John and argues that the evangelist has recorded “contradictions at the superficial level of language to encourage the audiences to think more deeply” [emphasis in original]. In other words, John’s Gospel teaches dialectically. That’s a reasonable explanation.

Williams doesn’t address other kinds of apparent contradictions between the Gospels, however, such as whether Jesus was born while Herod the Great was still alive (Matthew 2:3) or when Caesar Augustus’ worldwide census was taken (Luke 2:1–2). Herod died in 4 B.C. The census occurred in A.D. 6. It is this kind of apparent contradiction between the Gospels that vexes readers more than John’s “deliberate formal contradictions.” I believe that there are ways to resolve such apparent contradictions, but Williams doesn’t mention them.

One other quibble. There is evidence within the New Testament that Jesus spoke Aramaic (e.g., Mark 5:41; 7:34). The Gospels themselves are written in Greek, however. Williams argues that it’s possible Jesus spoke Greek as well. I don’t discount that possibility. What Williams doesn’t mention is the possibility that Jesus spoke Hebrew. Obviously, Jesus read Hebrew, the language of Scripture (e.g., Luke 4:16–17). The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls revealed that Hebrew was used in everyday conversation, not just religious discourse. Thus, Jesus could have spoken Hebrew as well.

This might explain something about Jesus’ use of parables. The most characteristic form of Jesus’ teaching in the Synoptic Gospels is the parable. “Though Jewish sources often attribute parables to rabbis,” writes Williams, “there are few parables in the Old Testament or Dead Sea Scrolls and none in the Apocrypha, and few are used by early Christians outside the New Testament.” What Williams doesn’t mention is that those rabbinic parables were told in Hebrew. Even when quoted in an Aramaic text such as the Talmud, the parable itself appeared in Hebrew.

If rabbis told parables in Hebrew, and if Jesus taught in parables, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that Jesus might also have taught parables in Hebrew. It seems to me that this line of thought could strengthen the Gospels’ reliability by linking Jesus’ form of teaching to a form of rabbinic teaching common in Second Temple Judaism.

An introductory text such as Can We Trust the Gospels? can’t get too far into the weeds of scholarly argument, however. Despite my negative comments, I think Williams’ treatment of the issues on the whole is helpful and worth recommending to a general readership. Readers interested in a deeper treatment of the subject can read the works Williams cites in the footnotes.

Book Reviewed
Peter J. Williams, Can We Trust the Gospels? (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2018).

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

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

The Color of Compromise | Book Review


Jemar Tisby’s The Color of Compromise is a difficult book to read. The difficulty does not result from a complex argument or dense prose, for the book’s argument is simply and straightforwardly made. Rather, the book is difficult to read because of its subject matter, namely, white Christian complicity with racism throughout American history.

“Historically speaking,” Tisby writes, “when faced with the choice between racism and equality, the American church has tended to practice a complicit Christianity rather than a courageous Christianity. They chose comfort over constructive conflict and in so doing created and maintained a status quo of injustice.”

Tisby makes his case by means of a historical survey of people and events from the colonial era to the late-twentieth century. “Not only did white Christians fail to fight for black equality,” Tisby quotes historian Carolyn DuPont in summary, “they often labored mightily against it.” Did you know, for example, that…

  • George Whitefield—the famous evangelist — urged the colony of Georgia, which had been founded as a free territory, to allow slavery. A large part of his motivation was the financial viability of his Bethesda Orphanage, which could be run more cheaply with slave than with paid labor.
  • Prior to the Civil War, Methodist, Baptist, and Presbyterian denominations split into Northern and Southern branches because of the issue of slavery. Leading Southern theologians, such as Robert Lewis Dabney, defended white supremacy and slavery on providential and biblical grounds: “Was it nothing, that this [black] race, morally inferior, should be brought into close relations to a nobler race?” (emphasis added).
  • According to historian Linda Gordon, “It’s estimated that 40,000 ministers were members of the Klan, and these people were sermonizing regularly, explicitly urging people to join the Klan.” She’s referring to the second iteration of the Ku Klux Klan, which began in the early twentieth century and spread throughout the North as well as the South.
  • A. Criswell, pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas, spoke in opposition to desegregation at the 1956 South Carolina Baptist Convention. Desegregation was “a denial of all that we believe in,” Brown v. Board of Education was “foolishness” and “idiocy,” and anyone who advocated integration was “a bunch of infidels, dying from the neck up.” First Baptist was the largest Southern Baptist church at the time. For many decades, its most famous member was the evangelist Billy Graham, whose personal views were more moderate than Criswell’s but who stopped short of advocating civil rights for black Americans.

These are but four examples of white Christian complicity with racism, which I have chosen because of their relevance to white evangelical Christians. There are many other examples from across the spectrum of American Protestantism. It is sometimes forgotten, for example, that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail was written to mainline Protestant ministers and a Jewish rabbi. If you’re looking for a searing indictment of white moderates, consider King’s words:

I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.”

Of course, there were white Christians throughout American history who opposed racism. But Tisby’s disheartening survey suggests that they were exceptions rather than the rule. As a Pentecostal, for example, I am unaware of any leading white American Pentecostals who publicly supported the Civil Rights Movement during the crucial decade between the Montgomery Bus Boycott and Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination.

I don’t always agree with Tisby’s reading of the historical evidence. The closer in time he drew to the present day, the more I found myself saying, “That’s not how I would read that particular incident.” The value of Tisby’s survey is that he places those incidents in the light of larger historical forces, showing continuity between them and the past. As a white reader, I found this broader historical perspective forced me to go back and take a second look at how I had been interpreting those more recent events.

So, why bring up this history of white complicity with racism now? While great strides in civil rights have been made over the decades, racism still exists and disfigures American society. “History and Scripture teaches [sic] us that there can be no reconciliation without repentance,” writes Tisby. “There can be no repentance without confession. And there can be no confession without truth.” The Color of Compromise tells a hard truth, but one necessary to hear if racial equity is to be achieved in the Church or in America.

Tisby closes his book with practical suggestions. I don’t agree with all of the particulars, but his thoughts about “The ARC of Racial Justice” are an “entry point” for those on a journey to racial equity. ARC is an acronym for awareness, relationships, and commitment. Become aware of the issues. Build relationships across lines of race and ethnicity. And commit to concrete action…such as reading this thought-provoking book.

Book Reviewed
Jemar Tisby, The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism(Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2019).

P.S. If you like my review, please vote “Helpful” on my Amazon review page.

In Search of the Beloved Community | Influence Magazine


Reflecting on race relations in the early days of the Azusa Street Revival (1906–1909), Frank Bartleman famously wrote, “The ‘color line’ was washed away in the blood.”That unity was short lived, however. Deep-seated feelings of white supremacy and Jim Crow segregation quickly redrew the line, resulting in decades of division and disparity between black and white Pentecostals that persist to this day, though to a lesser degree.

The same thing might be said about American Christians and American citizens more broadly. Though progress undeniably has been made, racial divisions and disparities stubbornly persist. This fact should be an affront to Bible-believing Christians, for the blood of Jesus Christ did indeed wash away the color line. What the apostle Paul said about the reconciliation of Jews and Gentiles applies to allracial and ethnic divisions: “[Christ’s] purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility” (Ephesians 2:15–16).

The question is, therefore, why racial divisions and disparities persist among American Christians. And what should be done about them? Three new books from evangelical publishing houses point to answers to both questions.

In The Color of Compromise (Zondervan), Jemar Tisby recounts the tragic history of American Christianity’s complicity in racism from the colonial period to the present day. Racism, in this account, is not merely personal animus. Tisby defines it as “prejudice plus power,” the combination of personal animus with impersonal systemic inequities.

“Historically speaking, when faced with the choice between racism and equality, the American church has tended to practice a complicit Christianity rather than a courageous Christianity,” Tisby writes about white Christians. “They chose comfort over constructive conflict and in so doing created and maintained a status quo of injustice.” To take just one of many examples, white evangelicals and Pentecostals were silent about the Civil Rights Movement at best. At worst, they opposed it.

Charles Marsh and John M. Perkins take up “the unfinished business of the Civil Rights movement” in Welcoming Justice (IVP Books). In a 1956 speech, Martin Luther King Jr. proclaimed, “the end [of the movement] is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the beloved community.” Beginning in the mid-1960s, the influence of black churches in the movement began to wane. “Removed from its home in the church, the work of building beloved community withered and died,” Marsh writes.

For nearly sixty years, however, and starting in rural Mississippi, Perkins has continued to seek the beloved community through faith-based community development. His model of development is based on “the three Rs” of relocation (“incarnational evangelism”), reparation (“sharing talents and resources with the poor”), and reconciliation (“embodying the message that ‘ye are all one in Christ Jesus’”). Perkins’ life and ministry thus continues the work of Dr. King.

Finally, in Woke Church (Moody), Eric Mason encourages the church “to utilize the mind of Christ and to be fully awake to the issues of race and injustice in this country.” (The word woke is slang for being conscientious about issues of racial and social justice.) According to Mason, a woke church is characterized by four things: awareness of the “overarching truths” that unite the Body of Christ; acknowledgement of our nation’s history of racism; accountability for Christians to “reclaim our roles as light and salt in the world”; and action to “bring healing and justice into our spheres [of influence].”

Each of these books is challenging in its own way. The Color of Compromise shines a light on American church history that whites often overlook or downplay. Welcoming Justice is a hopeful book, but it challenges “the cultural captivity of the church,” a captivity that promotes individualism and consumerism over solidarity and generosity. And Woke Church refuses to let readers separate the gospel from justice. All three books are well worth reading.

As I closed each book in turn, I found myself asking three questions: First, have I listened to the experiences of black brothers and sisters, which are often different from my own because our social locations are different? Two, have I taken what I’ve heard and used it for self-examination to identify wrong attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors? And three, what actions am I going to take to pursue the beloved community in my church and neighborhood?

Christ has washed away the color line with His blood. Let us lean into the reality of the “one new humanity” He has made!

Books Mentioned
Charles Marsh and John M. Perkins, Welcoming Justice: God’s Movement toward Beloved Community, 2nd ed. (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2018). Individual review here: https://amzn.to/2zwREIC.

Eric Mason, Woke Church: An Urgent Call for Christians in America to Confront Racism and Injustice (Chicago: Moody, 2018). Individual review here: https://amzn.to/2AthA7T.

Jemar Tisby, The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2019).

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

Is Your Church Disability Friendly? | Influence Podcast


The Americans with Disability Act defines a disability as “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activity.” How many Americans suffer from a disability? Estimates range from 13 percentof the U.S. populace to 20 percent. That’s between 40 and 60 million persons.

My guest on Episode 165 of the Influence Podcast is Charlie Chivers, founder and CEO of Special Touch Ministry, a non-profit faith-based organization, committed to serving people with intellectual or physical disabilities, their families and caregivers. Special Touch is interdenominational in scope, but Charlie is an ordained Assemblies of God minister and a missionary with AG U.S. Missions. We’re going to talk about how to make your church disability friendly.

I’m George P. Wood, executive editor of Influencemagazine and your host. My conversation with Charlie is coming up after a brief word from our sponsor.

The Couple That Prays Together… | Influence Podcast


“What your marriage will become is determined by how you pray,” write Joel and Nina Schmidgall in their new book, Praying Circles Around Your Marriage. “Prayers for your marriage will allow you to claim God-given promises, fulfill God-given dreams for your family, and seize a God-ordained legacy for generations.”

In Episode 164 of the Influence Podcast, I’m talking to the Schmidgalls about their book, which offers great advice about prayer, marriage, and family life. I’m George P. Wood, executive editor of Influence magazine and your host.

Joel and Nina Schmidgall are on staff at National Community Churchin Washington, DC. Joel serves as executive pastor as well as president of the DC Dream Center, a community center committed to inspiring and equipping youth and adults to reach their God-given potential. Nina serves as director of family ministry. The Schmidgalls live on Capitol Hill with their three kids.

The Marleyborne Drop | Book Review



Mick Herron’s Joe Country comes out on June 11, 2019, and features the usual suspects from Slough House, where MI5 sends the incompetent agents it can’t fire outright but would like to resign. I eagerly anticipate its publication, as Herron is easily one of the best suspense writers currently in operation—and funny to boot.

The events of The Marleyborne Drop, a Slough House novella, take place between London Rules and Joe Country. Solomon Dortmund, a pensioned Cold War asset, thinks he has witnessed a drop—an exchange of intelligence between an asset and her foreign handler—and informs his own semi-retired handler, John Bachelor. Bachelor passes along the information to Alec Wicinski, an MI5 analyst, who on the sly queries the identity of one of the parties involved.

Dortmund winds up dead. Wicinski winds up disgraced (and headed to Slough House). Bachelor ends up defrauding the British government. But the asset gets a promotion and her foreign handler gets away scot free.

As per usual, Herron’s writing is a delight, and this little story keeps you turning pages. The ending left me feeling meh, however, which is why I’m giving the novella three stars. On the other hand, I look forward to seeing what happens to Alec Wicinski. If Joe Country builds on The Marleyborne Drop and makes sense of the ending, my review will be revised upward.

Book Reviewed
Mick Herron, The Marleyborne Drop: A Novella(New York: Soho Press, 2018).

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

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