Embracing Contemplation | Book Review


If Christian book publishing trends are any indication, contemplative spirituality is a hot topic among Christian readers — hot in the dual sense that it arouses intense interest as well as intense opposition. Proponents claim it is an ancient Christian practice capable of deepening a person’s love for God and neighbor. Opponents counterclaim that it is biblically subpar, smacks of medieval Catholicism, and opens the door to New Age mysticism.

In Embracing Contemplation, John H. Coe and Kyle C. Strobel assemble a team of theologians to assess the appropriateness of contemplative spirituality for evangelical Christians. These various authors examine the Bible, church history, and the writings of contemporary authors and arrive at a measured appraisal of contemplative spirituality. Coe and Strobel conclude: “contemplation and the contemplative life is fundamental to the maturing Christian life.”

This approval of contemplation should not be interpreted as a blanket approval of everything that calls itself “contemplative spirituality,” of course. In his chapter, “The Controversy Over Contemplation and Contemplative Prayer,” Coe identifies forms of contemplative spirituality that are “sub-Christian.” Similarly, in “A Distinctively Christian Contemplation,” Glen G. Scorgie differentiates authentically Christian contemplation from what is found in other religions.

Because contemplative spirituality is often seen as a Catholic practice, several authors show how Protestant Reformers and well-known evangelicals practiced a gospel-based form of contemplation. This includes three “Johns” whose evangelical credentials are not in dispute: John Calvin, John Wesley, and Jonathan Edwards. See Ashley Cockworth’s “Sabbatical Contemplation?” for Calvin and Tom Schwanda’s “To Gaze on the Beauty of the Lord” for Wesley and Edwards. Of particular interest to Pentecostal readers is Simon Chan’s chapter, “Contemplative Prayer in the Evangelical and Pentecostal Traditions.”

Throughout the book, the authors do a good job of placing evangelical theological commitments at the forefront of the conversation about contemplative spirituality. What is consistent with those commitments is allowed; what isn’t is discarded. This measured approach is better than a knee-jerk rejection or simplistic embrace of what passes for contemplative spirituality today.

Book Reviewed
John H. Coe and Kyle C. Strobel, eds., Embracing Contemplation: Reclaiming a Christian Spiritual Practice (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2019).

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

P.P.S. This review is cross-posted from InfluenceMagazine.com with permission. It appeared in the May-June 2019 issue of Influencemagazine.

P.P.P.S. I interviewed John Coe and Kyle Strobel in Episode 175 of the Influence Podcast, which you can listen to below:

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How the Church Can Serve the City | Influence Podcast


On the Day of Pentecost, the first Christians preached the gospel of Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit. Soon after, they also organized ministries to help the poor. This combination of evangelism and compassion is a biblical hallmark of Spirit-filled ministry. It’s also a template for action today.

In this episode of the Influence Podcast, George P. Wood, executive editor of Influencemagazine, interviews Dave Donaldson and Wendell Vinson about how the local church can serve the city through compassionate ministry.

Dave Donaldson and Wendell Vinson are editors of CityServe: Your Guide to Church-Based Compassion, just published by Salubris Resources. Donaldson is co-founder and chairman for CityServe International, whose visionis “to see the local church fulfill its calling to be a stronger catalyst for healthier communities and the restoration of broken lives.” Vinson is also co-founder of CityServe and pastor of Canyon Hills Church in Bakersfield, California.

I Choose Honor | Book Review


The dictionary definition of honor is “to regard or treat (someone) with admiration and respect.” In I Choose Honor, Rich Wilkerson starts with this definition but goes on to show that the biblical conception of honor is more far-reaching. He also shows that honor is a pervasive biblical theme: “The stories of honor contained in the Word of God start from the verses in Genesis and continue to the last words in Revelation.” Along the way, he demonstrates how to honor family members, God’s creation, the poor and outcast, and God himself (through worship.” He then discusses how to create circles of honor, practice honor within relationships, honor the Holy Spirit, and practice honor day-to-day. For me personally, the chapters on honoring God’s creation and the poor and outcast were the most thought-provoking.

Book Reviewed
Rich Wilkerson, I Choose Honor: The Key to Reltationships, Faith, and Life (Lake Mary, FL: Charisma House, 2019).

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

My 569th Amazon Review on My 5/69 Birthday


Today is my birthday. By happy coincidence, I have published my 569th review on Amazon—5/69, 569th, get it? For my birthday, could you help me on my #NerdGoal to be Amazon’s #1 Reviewer and like some of the reviews I’ve posted this year? That would be the best present ever!
• Hesh Kestin, The Siege of Tel Aviv, https://amzn.to/2LCB3vQ.
• Jeff Wise, The Taking of MH370, https://amzn.to/2V1zSFu.
• Kadi Cole, Developing Female Leaders, https://amzn.to/2vG3fD6.
• Robert Louis Wilken, Liberty in the Things of God, https://amzn.to/2VBNImn.
• Matt Brown, Truth Plus Love, https://amzn.to/2XDbBat.
• John Coe and Kyle Strobel, Embracing Contemplation, https://amzn.to/2VlQMU9.
• Arthur C. Brooks, Love Your Enemies, https://amzn.to/2KFPfn5.
• Amy Artman, The Miracle Lady, https://amzn.to/2YyIsPa.
• Victoria Selman, Nothing to Lose, https://amzn.to/2U1s4Yx.
• Dean Inserra, The Unsaved Christian, https://amzn.to/2HGkj3V.
• Kerri Rawson, A Serial Killer’s Daugher, https://amzn.to/2EHVbWn.
• Kara Powell and Steven Argue, Growing With, https://amzn.to/2VFf2MV.
• Edward William Fudge, The Fire That Consumes, https://amzn.to/2VEseSb.
• Preston Sprinkle, ed., Four Views on Hell, https://amzn.to/2tEkNyu.
• Justin Whitmel Earley, The Common Rule, https://amzn.to/2SSfsCH.
• Steven D. Smith, Pagans and Christians in the City, https://amzn.to/2DVjq38.
• John C. Maxwell, Leadershift, https://amzn.to/2TD2OUr.
• Rod Loy, Help! I’m in Charge, https://amzn.to/2Rzz5Oj.
• Joel and Nina Schmidgall, Praying Circles Around Your Marriage, https://amzn.to/2GcFucS.
• Tony Dungy, The SOUL of a Team, https://amzn.to/2Sd4yqS.
• Joseph Pearce, Solzhenitsyn: A Soul in Exile, https://amzn.to/2G8HBxM.
• Nicholas Wolterstorff, In This World of Wonders, https://amzn.to/2B75Bhq.
• Peter J. Williams, Can We Trust the Gospels? https://amzn.to/2Dz3kgv.
• Jemar Tisby, The Color of Compromise, https://amzn.to/2AWI0jk.
• Victoria Selman, Blood for Blood, https://amzn.to/2VGUTqn.
• Rob Ketterling, Fix It! https://amzn.to/2FegW26.
• Leland Ryken, The Soul in Paraphrase, https://amzn.to/2LMxqzD.

The Siege of Tel Aviv | Book Review


Since its founding on May 14, 1948, the State of Israel has fought three wars whose outcome arguably was existential: the War of Independence (1948–1949), the Six Day War (1967), and the Yom Kippur War (1973).

In The Siege of Tel Aviv, Hesh Kestin imagines a point in the near future where Iran leads Arab armies in a genocidal war against Israel…and wins. So quick and total is the Persian-Arab victory over Israel that six million Jews flee to the only major Israeli city still under Jewish control, Tel Aviv, making it a ghetto. Meanwhile, the U.S. and the U.N. watch and wait, not wanting to interrupt the flow of oil from the Middle East.

But the Israelis take a page from the fighters of the Warsaw Ghetto and begin to fight back, led by the unlikely duo of an Israeli capitalist and a Russian Jewish mobster. Other memorable characters in the story include a cross-dressing ace pilot in the Israel Air Force, a Bedouin Israeli Defense Force scout and a Christian Arab barber who remain loyal to Israel, three joy-riding Marine F/A-18 pilots who save the day at crucial moment, and a six-ship flotilla of “Amazing Grace”-singing Christian fundamentalists on a humanitarian mission to feed the besieged city.

The Siege of Tel Aviv is a page-turner whose premise is frighteningly plausible. The problem is that the book’s happy ending isn’t. In the aftermath of the Yom Kippur War, which Israel nearly lost, Israel realized that its victory in the Six Day War had falsely led it to conclude that the Arabs would never fight it again because of its humiliating loss. In Hebrew, this false conclusion is known as the kontzeptziya.

What worries me about The Siege of Tel Aviv is that Israel’s comeback is too easy, the instance of a new kontzeptziya, that Israel’s will-to-live is sufficient to overcome overwhelming odds against it. Given its victories in 1949, 1967, and 1973, I can understand the basis for this. Israel has survived; it will survive. The problem with this novel’s execution of that will to survive is that the victory is just too easy. SPOILER ALERT: One doesn’t just liberate the entire Kuwaiti Air Force or steal hundreds of Jordanian tanks as quickly and painlessly as the rejuvenated IDF does.

Moreover, it seems to me that there are a number of false notes in Kestin’s portrayal of Christian fundamentalists and the Southern Republican U.S. president. Neither talk nor think the way Kestin portrays them. At least not the Christians, and as a Christian minister, I speak with some experience here.

So, a three-star review from me. The book was enjoyable as I read it, but after I read it, the too-easy victory and character false notes sounded too loudly to ignore. That said, Steve King—to whom the book is dedicated—likes it, saying it is “scarier than anything [he] ever wrote.” So, weigh that in the balance with my review.

A final note: The first edition of this book was published by Dzanc Books, who had published a previous novel by Kestin. Activists accused the book of being Islamophobic, so under pressure, Dzanc pulped it. Kestin then released it in a self-published second edition, which is what I reviewed. Is the book Islamophobic? I didn’t think so, and neither does Commentary magazine. You’ll have to read the book to make up your own mind.

Book Reviewed
Hesh Kestin, The Siege of Tel Aviv, 2nded. (Shoeshine Press, 2019).

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

The Taking of MH370 | Book Review


A little after midnight on Saturday, March 8, 2014, Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 departed Kuala Lumpur International Airport for its six-hour flight to Beijing Capital International Airport. It made its last contact with Malaysian air traffic control 38 minutes after takeoff, then dropped off ATC radar. It was tracked by Malaysian military radar for another hour before flying out of Malaysian-monitored airspace. The plane’s satellite communication system continued to make hourly “handshakes” with an Inmarsat satellite until 8:19 a.m. The plane has not been seen or heard from since, its 227 passengers and 12 crew presumed dead.

International authorities eventually concluded that the airline crashed into the Southern Indian Ocean, the crash officially ruled an accident. This conclusion was reached by a highly technical analysis of the plane’s satellite metadata. Malaysia, China, and Australia conducted massive maritime searches for the airline beginning in 2014, but ended those searches in January 2017. A private company reopened the search for six months in 2018, but like the previous searches, found nothing. Over the next few years, airplane debris belonging to MH370’s type of plane, a Boeing 777, was found on islands in the Western Indian Ocean or washed up on countries in East Africa. Together with the radar and satellite metadata, these debris are the only evidence of MH370’s fate.

Jeff Wise is a Harvard-educated science reporter who specializes in aviation and psychology. He has followed the disappearance of MH370 since the beginning, and in this book reaches a startling conclusion at odds with the official account: The plane didn’t crash (on accident or through a terrorist event). It was taken by Russian operatives and flown to Yubileyniy, a Russian controlled airstrip in Kazakhstan. The most likely reason for the hijacking—and hence murder of 239 souls—was to distract Western authorities from Russia’s 2014 depredations in Ukraine.

I know, I know—that’s crazy talk, right? It is a measure of Wise’s journalistic skill and aviation expertise that The Taking of MH370 carries you along with it almost to the end of the book. Wise highlights multiple anomalies in the data points acknowledged by all authorities, focusing on four in particular: (1) The satellite metadata “came out of nowhere.” For unexplained reasons, the aircraft’s satellite data unit (SDU) powered off, stopped transmitting, then sometime later rebooted and started transmitting again. Authorities have not adequately explained why this happened.

(2) The satellite metadata “transmitted an unexpected clue.” Normally, metadata does not transmit information about where and how a plane is traveling. But for technical reasons involving the SDU’s manufacturer, the age of the Inmarsat satellite, and the plane’s path along a north-south axis, its flightpath could be inferred. Wise finds this “awfully convenient.”

(3) The satellite metadata “couldn’t be cross-checked with any other evidence.” The Inmarsat data is the only hard evidence we have as to reconstruct MH370’s flight.

But (4) “when evidence later emerged that could have confirmed the turn south [instead of north to Beijing], it didn’t.” The massive years-long maritime search found no airplane. The debris that washed ashore showed evidence of being in the water for a shorter period of time than required had the plane crashed into the ocean when MH370 did. Also, debris showed up in places that were hard to reconstruct given knowledge of weather and ocean currents. And, again referring to the SDU’s reboot, Wise argues that the reboot signal contained serious anomalies never explained by authorities.

Had Wise left the matter with these anomalies, his book merely would’ve demonstrated how little we actually know about the fate of MH370, indeed, how weird reality unfortunately can be. It’s the Russia angle that pushes his book from acknowledging the weird to speculating the crazy. Think of it this way: Wise makes much of the fact that the satellite metadata pointed investigators in one direction, but the plane was never found. Fair enough, but he takes this as dispositive that the plane never went in that direction. But that’s not quite right, logically speaking. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, after all.

And anyway, other than speculation, what precisely is the evidence for Russian involvement? Honestly, I couldn’t see any that was persuasive. No one tracked MH370 to Kazakhstan. No satellite metadata places it in the vicinity. No satellite observed it. (And given that this is a Russian military airstrip, one assumes the U.S. is watching it closely.) I grant that Putin is a bad man and that Russia wanted to distract the West from what Russian forces were doing in Ukraine, but the fact that the story of MH370 took Ukraine off the front pages does not constitute evidence of the taking of MH370.

Indeed, the evidence Wise cites of Russia’s use of disinformation to distract its enemies and pursues its policy directives points us away from his conclusions about MH370. Toward the end of the book, Wise cites Russia’s use of disinformation in the 2016 U.S. presidential election as proof of its nefarious intent. Russia’s nefariousness, I think we can all agree, goes without saying. But here’s the problem: We know what they did and what they’re doing, right down to the name and address of the GRU officer unleashing bots on Facebook and Twitter. When Russian-backed Ukrainian forces shot down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 four months after MH370 disappeared, according to Wise, we could literally observe via satellite the truck that fired the missile. Given U.S. penetration of Russian intelligence operations, given our satellite observations of their military, it’s difficult for me to believe that Russia could’ve taken MH370 without the U.S. observing it. (And yes, I realize this is an absence-of-evidence argument too.)

Thus, in assessing The Taking of MH370, all I can say is that it is both fascinating and maddening. Fascinating for guiding readers through the weirdness of the data and evidence that all must use to come to a conclusion about MH370’s fate. Maddening because it lands on an explanation that, without direct evidence in its favor, grounds the event in malign human action. I don’t like the Russian government any more than Wise, but I don’t think they’re farsighted and competent enough to pull off this complex a con. Of course, the reason why conspiracy theories are so powerful is because they make tragedy explicable and therefore meaningful.

But what if the fact is simply that anomalies happen and reality is weird?

Book Reviewed
Jeff Wise, The Taking of MH370 (The Yellow Cabin Press, 2019).

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

Developing Female Leaders | Book Review


As a Pentecostal minister, I support women’s leadership in the church. I believe the Holy Spirit calls and empowers women to exercise their spiritual gifts, just as He does for men, whether those gifts prepare them for service as a lead pastor, a leading volunteer, or something in between. And I am grateful to be an ordained minister in the Assemblies of God, a denomination that affirms women’s leadership in both its theology and governing documents.

Even so, I recognize that women continue to face obstacles on the road to fulfilling their God-given callings. One major obstacle is theological: Too many evangelical churches and denominations value women’s congregational ministries but continue to cap their leadership at the point where women might exercise authority over men. The other major obstacle is practical and common even in churches and denominations like mine that affirm women’s leadership. Here, the problem is that such organizations make inadequate provision for the recruitment, development, and retention of women leaders.

Kadi Cole’s Developing Female Leadersdoes not weigh in on the theological obstacle to women’s leadership. Instead, she focuses on the practical obstacle. Whatever a church’s theology of women’s leadership, she argues, all churches can do better at developing women to serve at the highest level that the church’s theology allows. This is a shrewd move on Cole’s part, given the intractable debates among evangelicals about gender roles in church and society. It allows her to help all churches, whatever their theologies of women’s leadership, improve their practices of developing women leaders.

Here is a synopsis of the eight “best practices” Cole recommends in her book:

  1. Seek to understand. “Take the time to have a conversation with the female leaders you have on your team and in your congregation. Ask them about their stories and how they have impacted their view of themselves as leaders.”
  2. Clearly define what you believe. “Even if you have confidence that your [theological] stance is extremely clear, there have likely been mixed messages in how this has played out for [women] in your church and in [their] leadership. In my experience, most godly women are very aware there is a line somewhere, and because they are concerned about overstepping that line, they will often stay way below what you believe they have an opportunity to do. This gap is one of the places where you have incredible untapped leadership potential.”
  3. Mine the marketplace. Professional women “have been given projects to manage, a staff to lead, and initiatives to implement. They have received formal and informal leadership development and have withstood the rigors of the business world.” Consequently, Cole advises, “Never assume that an established, professional female isn’t interested in working with or for you. Many incredible leaders would love the opportunity to use their marketplace skills in the kingdom.”
  4. Integrate spiritual formation and leadership development. “Integrating spiritual growth and leadership development is a critical component of developing healthy, strong, and capable female leaders within your church. A woman cannot lead from a healthy soul if we do not help integrate her relationship with Christ with the gifts and calling He has given her.”
  5. Be an “other.”“Being and providing quality ‘others’ in the form of male mentors, male sponsors, and female coaches will give your female leaders the supportive connections and authentic relationships they need to learn, grow, and develop into the capable leaders your church needs and the fruitful leaders God has called them to be.”
  6. Create an environment of safety. “Creating a safe work environment free from harassment or predatorial behavior by anyone is imperative to the development of both male and female leaders who are godly, healthy, and trustworthy.”
  7. Upgrade your people practices. “In everything from recruiting practices to retirement benefits, making sure female leaders receive equal and ethical treatment for the work they contribute was an important issue, not just for women, but as a statement about how churches function as employers within our communities.”
  8. Take on your culture. “By reevaluating your stated values and use of language, redefining borders, and integrating strategic symbols, you can help your culture shift to an environment that not only welcomes and supports new female leadership, but creates an opportunity for many more leaders to grow and thrive.”

While this synopsis accurately summarizes the best practices Developing Female Leadersrecommends, it fails to articulate the wisdom, empathy, and granularity of good advice that runs throughout each chapter of the book.

If you are a male church leader, you really need to read this book. It will open your eyes to the obstacles that the more-than-half of your congregation which is female routinely face as they seek to perform their ministries, whether on staff or as volunteers. More importantly, however, it will give you a detailed plan to clear those obstacles and develop women leaders better. My guess is that as your leadership development practices for women improve, the overall quality of your leadership pipeline will improve too, for both men and women. Finally, for women leaders reading this book, it concludes with a bonus chapter titled, “Best Practices for Female Leaders.”

I cannot recommend this book highly enough!

Book Reviewed
Kadi Cole, Developing Female Leaders: Navigate the Minefields and Release the Potential of Women in Your Church(Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2019).

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

P.P.S. This review is cross-posted at InfluenceMagazine.com.