The Night Fire | Book Review


The Night Fire is Michael Connelly’s third novel featuring LAPD detective Renée Ballard, and his second pairing Ballard with Harry Bosch. I like the pairing for many reasons. Ballard is a great character, as is Bosch. But Bosch is aging, so Connelly—who is my favorite murder mystery author—needs a new lead character. Thankfully, he’s got Ballard.

The novel begins with an arson-related death that Ballard is assigned on Hollywood Division’s “late shift.” It looks accidental, so she files a report and hands it off to day detectives. Bosch’s story begins when John Jack Thompson, his mentor as a young detective, dies and leaves him with a murder book that he had “stolen” from LAPD when he retired. The murder is a cold case from 1990. At the same time, Bosch helps his half-brother Mickey Haller question the guilt of an alleged a confessed murderer whom the police have dead to rights because of DNA, leaving open the question of who the “real killer” is. Ballard and Bosch co-work these cases, leading them into surprising discoveries…and danger.

The Night Fire is a slow burn. The danger part doesn’t really come in till the last 30 pages of the book. So, if you’re looking for explosive action, this isn’t your book. But as a police procedural—carefully following the evidence where it leads—this book kept me turning pages, which is my number-one criteria for whether I like a murder mystery.

Book Reviewed
Michael Connelly, The Night Fire: A Renee Ballard and Harry Bosch Novel (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2019).

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

The Battle over Religions Liberty in America | Influence Podcast


“We’ve long lived in a country where religious freedom was secure, and we didn’t need to give it much thought,” writes Luke Goodrich. “Now we’re realizing the country is changing and we might not enjoy the same degree of religious freedom forever. If we don’t start thinking about it now, we’ll be unprepared.”

I’m George P. Wood, executive editor of Influence magazine, coordinator of Religious Freedom Initiatives for the Assemblies of God (USA), and your host. In this episode of the Influence Podcast, I’m talking to Luke Goodrich about the contemporary state of American religious freedom.

Luke Goodrich is vice president and senior counsel at Becket Law, a leading non-profit, public-interest legal and educational institute with a mission to protect the free expression of all faiths. He was part of the Becket legal team that won four major Supreme Court cases in four years: Little Sisters of the Poor v. BurwellHolt v. Hobbs, Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, and Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC. He is the author of Free to Believe: The Battle over Religious Liberty in America, published this past Tuesday by Multnomah.

This episode of the Influence Podcast is brought to you by My Healthy Church, distributors of Help! I’m in Charge:

No matter what kind of leader you are, the pressure to get everything right can plague you with worry. That’s why in Help! I’m in Charge, Rod Loy offers the candid advice you need to face the fears and challenges of leadership. Straightforward, light-hearted, but never sugar-coated, Help! I’m in Charge will guide you to develop the kind of practical, Scripture-based leadership skills that can fortify your confidence for years to come.

For more information about Help! I’m in Charge, visit RodLoyBooks.com.

Free to Believe | Book Review


Religious freedom is one of America’s most cherished values. It is enshrined in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and protected by a thick web of statutory laws and judicial decisions. The same holds true at the state level.

Yet religious freedom is also one of our nation’s most contested values. Many American Christians believe religious freedom is under attack. According to Luke Goodrich, they’re not entirely wrong.

“We’ve long lived in a country where religious freedom was secure, and we didn’t need to give it much thought,” Goodrich writes in the Introduction to Free to Believe. “Now we’re realizing the country is changing and we might not enjoy the same degree of religious freedom forever. If we don’t start thinking about it now, we’ll be unprepared.”

Goodrich knows whereof he speaks. He is a lawyer with Becket Law, a leading nonprofit, public interest legal and educational institute with a mission to protect the free expression of all faiths — “from Anglicans to Zoroastrians,” as Becket lawyers like to say. He was part of the legal team that won four major Supreme Court cases in as many years: Little Sisters of the Poor v. AzarHolt v. Hobbs, Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, and Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC. He also is an evangelical Christian, and in Free to Believe, he aims to prepare Christian readers for “the battle over religious liberty in America,” in the words of the book’s subtitle. He does this by answering three questions:

  1. What is religious freedom?
  2. What are the most serious threats?
  3. What can be done?

In Goodrich’s definition, “religious freedom means the government, within reasonable limits, leaves religion alone as much as possible.” It is, in other words, an expansive but not absolute right. As a general rule, government must leave religion alone; it should step in only “to protect other rights.” Just as the right to free speech does not entail the right to libel and defame others, for example, so the right to exercise religion does not license child sacrifice. Government must “balance many competing rights.”

Religious freedom is worth protecting, Goodrich argues, because it is a secular good. It “benefits society” through the promotion of good works, the protection of dissenting opinions, and the reduction of social tensions. It “protects our other rights” by limiting the scope of governmental action. And because it is “rooted in human nature,” it is a “fundamental human right,” intrinsically worth protecting.

But religious freedom is not merely a secular good. It is a spiritual good, too. Goodrich argues that religious freedom is “rooted in God’s original design for humanity — in the way God created us (for relationship with Him) and in the way God relates to us (giving us freedom to embrace or reject Him.” A genuinely loving relationship is non-coercive. Because even God does not coerce religious belief or practice, neither should government. Consequently, “religious freedom is a basic issue of biblical justice, rooted in the nature of God and the nature of man.”

Having defined what religious freedom is, Goodrich turns to the five most serious threats to it: religious discrimination, abortion rights, gay rights, Islam, and the naked public square. My guess is that you are probably acquainted with some of the current clashes revolving around these threats. These clashes center around questions such as:

  • Can a religious organization use religious criteria for hiring and firing employees?
  • If a law requires businesses to provide contraceptive coverage to employees, but religious business owners believe some of those contraceptives actually induce abortion, can they refuse to provide them?
  • Can religious florists, bakers or photographers refuse to provide goods or services to an LGBT couple getting married?
  • Should the law accommodate Muslim religious practices, and if so, to what degree?
  • Are religious symbols permissible on public monuments or public property?

Goodrich argues that the answer to each question is, or should be, yes. He has litigated several cases before the Supreme Court that arrived at affirmative answers. But neither the Constitution nor federal and state laws guarantee that the religious freedom side will win every legal contest. Remember, religious freedom, while expansive, is not absolute, and U.S. courts must take up cases that involve balancing the rights of the religious with others who claim a contrary legal right.

The section on threats to religious freedom is the longest part of the book. I won’t further describe those threats here because you’re probably already acquainted with them. What these chapters will do is deepen and complexify your understanding of the relevant legal issues, even as they clarify the case for religious freedom in each instance.

This is essential reading for any Christian who is concerned with the state of religious freedom in America today. Indeed, I believe Free to Believe is the best Christian primer on American religious freedom currently available.

Knowing what religious freedom is and what threatens it, Goodrich concludes Free to Believe with suggestions about how best to advance its cause. He is a lawyer, so litigation is obviously on the table. But Goodrich is also an evangelical Christian, and it is as one Christian to others that he offers this important word of wisdom: “before we address what we’re going to do about religious freedom, we need to reconsider what type of people we’re called to be in the midst of religious freedom conflicts. Only if we become those people can we ‘win’ religious freedom fights in any meaningful sense.” In other words, “We’re called not to win but to be like Jesus.” Win or lose, we must imitate our Lord.

Goodrich goes on to outline seven biblical principles that American Christians find difficult to live out, even though our brothers and sisters around the world do so in environments with far less religious freedom:

  1. Expect suffering (Matthew 10:16–25).
  2. Rejoice when it comes (Matthew 5:11–12).
  3. Fear God, not men (1 Peter 3:14–15).
  4. Strive for peace (Romans 12:18).
  5. Continue doing good (1 Peter 4:19).
  6. Love our enemies (Luke 6:27–28).
  7. Care for one another (Hebrews 13:3).

As someone who is deeply committed to religious freedom, I believe we should be vigilant about threats to it in America and abroad. And to be honest, those threats often feel like they’re growing.

Even so, I believe Goodrich is right. The ultimate question is not how much religious freedom we have, but how well we freely use the religion we have. As the apostle Paul enjoined Christians at an earlier time and in another place, “You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love” (Galatians 5:13).

If you’re looking for a long-term solution to America’s contests over religious freedom, I’d suggest that loving, humble service of others is the best place to start.

Book Reviewed
Luke Goodrich, Free to Believe: The Battle over Religious Liberty in America (Colorado Springs, CO: Multnomah, 2019).

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

P.P.S. I wrote this review for the November-December issue of Influence magazine. It is posted here by permission.

Blessed to Bless | Influence Podcast


“The blessing of God is the solution to your biggest problem, the answer to your boldest prayer, and the fulfillment of your bravest dream,” writes Mark Batterson in his new book, Double Blessing. But God doesn’t want us merely to receive His blessing, He wants us to give it away too. We are, as Batterson puts it, “blessed to bless.”

In this episode of the Influence Podcast, George P. Wood, Influence magazine’s executive editor, talksto Mark Batterson about this “double blessing.” Batterson is pastor of National Community Church, a multisite congregation in Washington, DC, and the New York Times best-selling author of fifteen books, including In a Pit with a Lion on a Snowy Day and The Circle Maker.

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

When to Walk Away | Book Review


This sentence in Gary Thomas’ new book grabbed my attention: “Sometimes to follow in the footsteps of Jesus is to walk away from others or to let them walk away from us.”

I wish someone had told me that 25 years ago, when I stood in a courtyard between Sunday School classrooms yelling at a church member. At that time, I was the 25-year-old Christian education director of the church in which I had grown up. I superintended approximately 20 Sunday School classes and taught one myself.

One day, an eager, early-middle-age Brit joined the class. At first, he kept to himself, which was fine by me. After several weeks, he began participating in class discussions, which was also fine by me. But I began to notice a trend to his class contributions. They all had to do with the inferiority of this or that modern translation of this or that Bible verse when compared to the King James Version. He was a King James Only kind of guy, it turned out.

It took me a while to catch on to this. My first response was to educate myself. Then, young teacher that I was, my next response was to educate him. But regardless of my months of feeding him articles and hours of one-on-one time explaining the error of his ways, he persisted in derailing every class discussion he participated in — and he now participated in all of them! — with bad exegesis and crazy conspiracy theories.

Which is why I was standing in the courtyard after Sunday School, exasperated at his latest shenanigans, telling him not to attend my Sunday School class, or any other, ever again.

Why do I tell you this? Not because I am proud of my response to KJV Guy. I’m not. I tell you this because at that stage in my life, I felt it was my duty as a Christian and as a minister to devote lavish amounts of time to any person who demanded it, no matter how unreasonable their demand. Over the years, as a practical matter, and to retain my sanity, I’ve stopped doing that. But in the back of my mind, I always felt a bit guilty for not being more like the “Hound of Heaven.”

But as Gary Thomas demonstrates in When to Walk Away, not only did Jesus himself walk away from people on occasion, He allowed them to walk away from Him. Thomas includes an Appendix listing 41 times in the Gospels that Jesus did this for one reason or another. It makes for eye-opening reading.

Jesus walked away or let others walk away for a variety of reasons. Thomas’ focus in this book is walking away from “toxic people.” These people excel in at least one of three things: “a murderous spirit, a controlling nature, and a heart that loves hate.” When to Walk Away includes numerous examples, from Thomas’ life and pastoral counseling, of toxic people.

Thomas is careful to warn against understanding toxicity too broadly. It’s not synonymous with difficult people or circumstances. After all, Jesus came to “to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10), and the lost are difficult people in difficult circumstances by definition. Toxic people are difficult, but in a soul-killing, relationship-destroying way. Like internet trolls, once you’ve identified them, you’re best off avoiding them.

Why? Because God doesn’t want His children to play defense against toxic people. He wants them to go on offense, using their best time, talents and treasures to develop “reliable people,” that is, 2 Timothy 2:2 people. In that verse, Paul writes, “And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable people who will also be qualified to teach others.”

Although Thomas spends most of the book advising readers how to identify and then disentangle themselves from toxic people, the heart of his book is really Chapters 6 and 7, “No Time to Waste” and “Reliable People.” In those two chapters, he outlines a strategic offense that allows us to put our best time and efforts into reliable people. This doesn’t mean avoiding problems or difficulties, since even reliable people have plenty of both. It does mean exercising discernment about people, however. And in some cases, the good news is that even toxic people, at least some of them, can become reliable ones through strong boundaries and good counsel.

I recommend When to Walk Away to pastors and other church leaders especially, who, perhaps more than others, strongly feel Christ’s imperative to disciple people. Thomas didn’t write it just for pastors, however, and it can be read profitably by just about anybody.

Book Reviewed
Gary Thomas, When to Walk Away: Finding Freedom from Toxic People (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2019).

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

P.P.S. I wrote this review for InfluenceMagazine.com. It is posted here with permission.

Double Blessing | Book Review


I have known Mark Batterson for 30 years and read most, if not all, of his books. Double Blessing is his fifteenth book, and it combines Mark’s trademark blend of insightful biblical commentary, memorable phrasing, optimistic cheerleading to go deeper in your faith, and random biographical and scientific facts. (For example, I learned about the Avogadro Constant in chapter 4). If I could sum up the book in one sentence (Mark’s), it is this: “The secret of the double blessing is simply this: the way you get it is by giving it.” In a culture that focuses on getting, this book is a blessing.

Book Reviewed
Mark Batterson, Double Blessing: How to Get It. How to Give It (Colorado Springs, CO: Multnomah, 2019).

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

Shepherding God’s People | Book Review


Dr. Siang-Yang Tan is professor of psychology at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California, and senior pastor of First Evangelical Church in nearby Glendale. In Shepherding God’s People, he examines “biblical and theological foundations for pastoral ministry” (Part 1) and “areas of pastoral ministry” (Part 2). The author himself describes the book this way in the Preface:

The book presents a biblical perspective on pastoral and church ministry that emphasizes faithfulness and fruitfulness in Christ (John 15:5), through the presence and power of the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:8; Eph. 5:18; 6:10–18), made perfect in weakness, brokenness, and humility (2 Cor. 12:9–10) rather than in success or excellence of the wrong kind … . Each chapter includes a substantial review of the literature available on the topic as well as my own biblical, theological, psychological, cultural, and personal reflections.

Baker Academic published the book, and I imagine its intended readers are seminarians preparing for ministry. Although it is well, clearly, and simply written, it at times feels like an introductory survey rather than a how-to guide. Being nearly 25 years out of seminary — I attended Fuller but did not have Dr. Tan as a professor — I found this off-putting at first.

But as I kept reading, I realized that I was benefitting from the author’s extensive reading of the relevant literature, especially as it was focused through the lens of his own pastoral ministry. I came to regard the book as the equivalent of a refresher course on the theology and practice of pastoral ministry. An added bonus is that each chapter includes an extensive list of recommended readings. You can use the book as an introduction to best practices and the recommended readings as a guide to what you should read next, should a specific topic interest you.

As a Pentecostal minister, I appreciated Chapter 2 especially. It is titled, “The Person and Work of the Holy Spirit as Crucial and Essential for Pastoral Ministry.” Though Dr. Tan does not write from a classical Pentecostal perspective, this chapter reminded me of the breadth of the Holy Spirit’s work as well as the many points in common between Pentecostal and evangelical theologies of the Spirit.

Book Reviewed
Siang-Yang Tan, Shepherding God’s People: A Guide to Faithful and Fruitful Pastoral Ministry (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2019).

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

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

Pastor Paul | Book Review


What do pastors do? A lot of things. Perhaps too many things. They preach and teach; plan worship services; officiate at major life events such as baby dedications, weddings, and funerals (“hatch, match, and dispatch,” as one wag puts it); evangelize; disciple; counsel; visit the sick and elderly; disperse benevolence funds; cast vision; raise money; lead meetings; set up auditoriums; clean toilets; eat too much at the potluck; and so on. The list is long, but something else is always being added, as every pastor knows.

But what do pastors do these things for? In the midst of a busy schedule, pastors all too quickly and easily forget their purpose, losing sight of the end toward which all their activities are but means. In Pastor Paul, Scot McKnight mines the life and thought of the apostle to the Gentiles to remind pastors of their fundamental purpose. He announces his thesis early on: “The pastor is called to nurture a culture of Christoformity.” As Paul himself puts it in Galatians 4:19: “My dear children, for whom I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you” (emphasis added). In Romans 8:29, Paul describes Christoformity as God’s own goal: “For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son” (emphasis added).

We typically understand Christoformity in individual terms. A person — you or me, for example — increasingly becomes like Christ in thought, word and deed. That’s right as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go far enough, for Christoformity must also be understood in social terms. It is a characteristic of both the Christian and of the congregation in which he or she is a member. A church’s culture consists of four elements, according to McKnight: the pastor(s) and leaders; the congregation; the relationship between them; and the policies, structures, and systems that govern them. “No church culture is completely good,” McKnight warns, “because it emerges from human beings who are not completely good. Yet the gospel’s power transforms what could be a bad culture into good at some level, so churches have at least some small chance of emerging as a culture of (some) goodness.”

Chapter 1 briefly sketches “ten elements of a Christoform culture that a pastor can nurture”: people, formation, listening, prophecy, presence, priesthood, servanthood, and leadership, all the while resisting the temptations of celebrity and power. Chapters 2–8 describe what such a culture looks like in terms of relationships, economic stewardship, Scripture interpretation, evangelistic witness, subversion of worldliness, and practical wisdom. McKnight acknowledges that these topics are illustrative rather than exhaustive. Pastor Paul, he insists, is not a complete or systematic theology of pastoring.

Also, throughout the book, McKnight repeatedly states that he writes as a New Testament scholar, not as a pastor. He’s trying to describe what Pastor Paul did, not prescribe what contemporary pastors should do. Even so, the book is illuminating and suggestive. Pastors with ears to hear will hear its Christoform message and know what to do with it in their own congregational contexts.

I close with a quotation from McKnight’s penultimate page, which reminds pastor-readers of their need for the Holy Spirit. McKnight himself isn’t Pentecostal, but as a Pentecostal, I appreciated this statement nonetheless:

Christoformity is not the inevitable consequence of forming the right habits, nor is it simply the result of intentions and willpower. Rather, Christ is present in our word at its core through the Spirit, and the grace of God operating through the Spirit is the only path of Christoformity. Christocentricity is only possible through Pneumacentricity: we can only find Christ at the center if we are open to the Spirit taking us there.

Amen!

Book Reviewed
Scot McKnight, Pastor Paul: Nurturing a Culture of Christoformity in the Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2019).

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

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

How to Walk Away from Toxic People | Influence Podcast


“Sometimes to follow in the footsteps of Jesus is to walk away from others or to let them walk away from us.” That’s what Gary Thomas writes in his new, When to Walk Away, published this past Tuesday by Zondervan. I’ll be talking with him about how to walk away from toxic people in this episode of the Influence Podcast.

I’m George P. Wood, executive editor of Influence magazine and your host. Gary Thomas is writer-in-residence at Second Baptist Church in Houston, Texas, and adjunct faculty teaching spiritual formation at Western Seminary in Denver, Colorado, as well as Houston Theological Seminary. He’s the author of numerous books, including Sacred Marriage, Sacred Parenting, and Authentic Faith.

This episode of the Influence Podcast is brought to you by My Healthy Church, distributors of Say HELLO Forever Friends:

Sharing Jesus is easy when you “Say Hello!” Help kids build intentional friendships with Muslim friends and others who need to know Jesus with the Say HELLO Forever Friends curriculum kit. Start kids on a path to lifelong evangelism while showing them how important it is to connect to others with compassion and care.

For more information visit MyHealthyChurch.com/SayHello.

P.S. This podcast originally appeared at InfluenceMagazine.com and is posted here by permission.

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: