Weep with Me | Book Review


On June 4, North Central University hosted the funeral for George Floyd. NCU is an Assemblies of God school in Minneapolis, Minnesota. In the days that followed the funeral, my Facebook timeline was filled with Christian folk weighing in on whether this was a good idea. The vast majority thought it was, but a vocal few — all but one of them white — were angry about aspects of the school’s action.

While perusing the back-and-forth on Facebook, I received an out-of-the-blue call from a minister friend in the Church of God in Christ. COGIC is a historically black church and the nation’s largest Pentecostal denomination. My friend expressed incredible joy at NCU’s action, and he shared with me that other COGIC leaders also were happy at this unexpected action on NCU’s part.

The difference between the angry comments I read on Facebook and the joy in my friend’s phone call — anger and joy about the same event! — was (and is) jarring. Scripture enjoins believers, “Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn” (Romans 12:15). And yet, on June 4, the emotions of Christians I personally observed were out of sync.

In Weep with Me, Mark Vroegop shows “how lament opens a door for racial reconciliation.” A lament is “a prayer in pain that leads to trust.” It is a common form of prayer in the Bible, especially in the Psalms and Lamentations. It usually contains four elements: 1) turning to God, 2) complaining about one’s situation, 3) asking for relief, and 4) trusting in God for deliverance. Vroegop’s previous book, Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy, discusses these four elements in greater detail.

Lament is largely absent from white Christian spirituality in America. It is the native tongue of black Christian spirituality, however, the essence of African American spirituals. “These songs of sorrow expressed the emotional trauma of slavery and segregation,” Vroegop writes. “They protested exile created by the sins of partiality and abuse.” Ironically, when white American Christians look for mournful songs to use in Good Friday services, for example, they often turn to spirituals such as “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?”

So, how does lament open a door for racial reconciliation? To articulate the answer, Vroegop sketches out a path to reconciliation that consists of five movements.

First, love. “The church should be involved in racial reconciliation because of what we believe,” namely, that “Christ is all, and in all” (Colossians 3:11, ESV).

Second, listen. “Too often the tone of the conversation [about racial reconciliation] is marked by closed minds, hasty words, and angry attitudes.” Progress requires “a posture of listening.”

Third, lament. More on this in a moment, but for now, just keep in mind that lament “supplies a biblical voice that allows us to talk to God and one another about the pain we feel and see.”

Fourth, learn. “Our cultural backgrounds, understandings of history, and experiences create assumptions and blind spots. If we take the posture of learning from one another, we create a safe environment for asking questions and working through disagreements.”

Fifth, leverage. “The key is to understand that racial reconciliation requires action,” Vroegop concludes. “Love, listening, lamenting, and learning are designed to lead us here.”

So, again, how does lament open a door for racial reconciliation? It does so differently depending on whether a Christian belongs to his or her nation’s majority or one of its many minorities. In Part 2, Vroegop addresses America’s white majority; in Part 3, its black minority. (Though Vroegop draws on the history of America’s white-black divide, what he says could apply to white relations with other racial and ethnic minorities too.)

For majority Christians, lament engenders empathy, defined as “the ability or willingness to understand and care.” Empathy is the emotion behind Romans 12:15, which I quoted earlier, the ability to rejoice with or mourn with another. The incident I opened this review with is thus a failure of empathy. By contrast, “Weeping with those who weep emulates the heart of Jesus. It builds a bridge of grace over the chasm of division and injustice. It provides comfort to those who are hurting.”

Lament also offers majority Christians the language with which to speak up. “When it comes to racial injustice, the historical silence of most Christians has been deafening.” Lament both “acknowledges the brokenness of the world” and “refuses to remain silent.” A lament, merely by acknowledging that something is grievously wrong, breaks “the stronghold of the status quo.”

Finally, lament offers majority Christians the language of repentance and remorse. “Repentance is the change of mind, heart, and will that involves confession of specific sin and a change in our affections,” Vroegop writes. “Remorse is the heartfelt response when the weight of sin is understood.” We repent of our own sins. We express remorse for the sins of history that have shaped our present.

For minority Christians, lament offers the language of protest, triumph and faith. “Lament is an act of protest as the lamenter is allowed to express indignation and even outrage about the experience of suffering,” writes Soong-Chan Rah. In the Bible, such complaints were often found on the lips of exiles. “By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept” (Psalm 137:1, ESV). The Bible licenses the negative emotions associated with unjust suffering.

And yet, lament also gives minority Christians a language of triumph, as they acknowledge God’s power to redeem them out of their pain. Using Psalm 94, Vroegop draws three lessons about the power of lament. First, lament “validates the concern with injustice.” Second, it “shows us an appeal made not only because of personal wrongs but also because the divinely given system of justice was not working. And third, it “helps us see what to do with our frustrations and deep concern,” namely, turning to God and foreswearing vengeance.

Finally, lament gives minority Christians a language of hope about four things in particular: “God will help you,” “hardship can be transformative,” “people can change,” and “God will make it right.” Black Christians’ experience of suffering has often give them reservoirs of hope unavailable to those who live in comparative ease.

Weep with Me doesn’t claim to be the be-all, end-all of racial reconciliation. Much more has to be done than simply lamenting the current state of race relations in America, even among American Christians. And yet, the more I ponder the disparate responses to George Floyd’s funeral I mentioned at the top of this review, the more I wonder whether lament is a crucial missing step in contemporary reconciliation efforts.

Perhaps black and white Christians in America cannot move in step until our hearts are in sync, mourning together … and rejoicing too.

Book Reviewed
Mark Vroegop, Weep with Me: How Lament Opens a Door for Racial Reconciliation (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2020).

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.

Farnsworth’s Classical English Style | Book Review


If you write for a living, or if, like me, you edit, or even if you simply like to pop the hood of English to see how the language works, you ought to read Farnsworth’s Classical English Style. It identifies “principles of style that are powerful and enduring,” illustrating them with quotations from masters of English prose such as the King James Bible, Shakespeare, Abraham Lincoln, and Winston Churchill.

The book’s central insight is that “rhetorical power can be created by various sorts of oppositions—by the relationship, usually one of friction or contrast, between two things. The two things might be plain and fancy words, long and short sentences, hard and soft syllables, high or rich substance and low or simple style (or vice versa), the concrete and the abstract, the passive and the active, the dignified and the coarse, detachment from the audience and engagement with it.”

The book’s first three chapters focus on style questions that arise from the fact that contemporary English grows mostly from Anglo-Saxon and Latinate roots. Consequently, when choosing words, an author can harvest concrete, often one-beat Saxon words, or abstract, often polysyllabic Latinate words: for example, light (Saxon) or illumination (Latinate). One rule of thumb is to prefer the short, concrete Saxon words.

Ward Farnsworth argues, however, that the best English prose brings Saxon and Latinate words together fruitfully. (Sometimes, he points out, the issue isn’t etymology so much as it is word length, with Saxon standing in for short words and Latinate for long ones.) You can begin a sentence with Latinate words and end it with Saxon ones: “the Saxon finish.” Or You can do the opposite, “the Latinate finish.” For an example of the Saxon finish, consider this quote from Churchill: “You may take the most gallant sailor, the most intrepid airman, or the most audacious soldier, put them at a table together—what do you get? The sum of their fears.”

Successive chapters address metonymy, hyperbole, sentence length and structure, the passive voice, anacoluthon and related devices, and rhetorical announcements and instructions. The final two chapters address cadence, that is, “variation between stressed and unstressed syllables.” We typically think of cadence in terms of poetic meter: iambs, trochees, anapests, dactyls, and so on. Good prose has poetic moments, however, when the cadence of the words makes the sentence sharp and memorable. Consider this anapestic finish—an anapest consists of “three stressed syllables with two unstressed ones between each of them”—from 2 Corinthians 2:15 (KJV): “To the one we are the savour of death unto death; and to the other the savour of life unto life” (the bold letters are stressed syllables).

(Poetry friends: Both Farnsworth and I know that an anapest is two unstressed syllables followed by a stressed one, so just go with his novel definition of anapestic finish.)

Readers should take note that this is now a how-to book. It identifies stylistic traits and illustrates them copiously. Indeed, the illustrations of good English prose are a selling point for the book. However, Farnsworth does not offer a Step 1, Step 2, Step 3 approach to writing good prose. He simply identifies the principle, illustrates it, and leaves the would-be writer to his or her own devices. And that’s a good thing! Good writing comes from reading good writing and working hard on your own writing to make it good. That kind of writing can’t be prepackaged or bought. It must be earned.

Farnsworth’s Classical English Style is the third volume in a trilogy. After reading it, I look forward to savoring its predecessors: Farnsworth’s Classical English Rhetoric and Farnworth’s Classical English Metaphor.

Book Reviewed
Ward Farnsworth, Farnsworth’s Classical English Style (Boston: David R. Godine, 2020).

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

Outrage Culture vs. Gentle Jesus | Influence Podcast


In late 2014, Slate magazine published a series of articles under the title, “The Year of Outrage.” If anything, the outrage in America has only worsened since then. Even Christians have jumped onto the outrage train. The results haven’t been pretty, for either society generally or churches specifically.

What would Jesus do? And how should Christians follow His example? Scott Sauls thinks gentleness is the answer to both questions: “Jesus has been gentle toward us,” he writes, “so we have good reason to become gentle toward others, including those who treat us like enemies.”

In this episode of the Influence Podcast, I’m talking to Pastor Sauls about how Jesus’ gentleness is the antithesis of outrage culture. I’m George P. Wood, executive editor of Influence magazine and your host. Scott Sauls is senior pastor of Christ Presbyterian Church in Nashville, Tennessee, and author of A Gentle Answer: Our “Secret Weapon” in an Age of Us Against Them, published in June by Thomas Nelson.

A Better Way of Doing Apologetics | Influence Podcast


In 1 Peter 3:15, the apostle wrote: “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.” The Greek word the NIV translates as “answer” is apología, from which we get the word apologetics. Apologetics is that branch of Christian theology which offers reasonable answers to skeptical questions about the faith.

Apologetics is a necessary component of evangelism and discipleship, especially in an America that is becoming increasingly post-Christian. But apologetics is not always done well. Too often, it is perceived as a logic-chopping exercise  in answering abstract questions no one is asking by faith-defenders who are more concerned with winning arguments than people.

In this episode of the Influence Podcast, I’m exploring a better way of doing apologetics with Joshua Chatraw. I’m George P. Wood, executive editor of Influence magazine and your host.

Dr. Chatraw is executive director of the Center for Public Christianity at Holy Trinity Anglican Church in Raleigh, North Carolina, and author of numerous books on apologetics, including Apologetics at the Cross, The History of Apologetics, and most recently, Telling a Better Story. All these books are published by Zondervan.

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

P.P.S. I reviewed Chatraw’s book here: https://amzn.to/32ui5OK. If you like my review, please click “Helpful” on my review page.

Telling a Better Story | Book Review


In an increasingly post-Christian America, apologetics — the defense of the Christian faith — is a necessary component of evangelism and discipleship. Christians need to “be prepared to give an answer [Greek, apología] to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have” (1 Peter 3:15). How they can do so well is the subject of Joshua D. Chatraw’s excellent new book, Telling a Better Story.

Apologetics has a bad rap in some quarters. Chatraw tells the story of a student at a Christian university who asked him, “What is your best argument for Christianity?”

When Chatraw answered, “It depends on who I’m talking to and what the situation is,” the student seemed unimpressed.

He was looking for a “knockout punch,” a “winner take all” argument. Here’s a pro tip: Those arguments are vanishingly rare, and anyway, what we want to win is a person, not a debate.

And then apologetics seems far removed from the concerns of everyday life. Chatraw describes the kind of apologetics in which many Bible-believing Christians were trained as “Building Block Apologetics.” The foundation of the pyramid is “universal logic,” rules of thinking that validate a “general theism,” on top of which is “historical evidence” for the Bible. The capstone is “the message of the gospel.” The problem with this kind of apologetics, which moves from the abstract to the concrete, is not that it’s false but that it’s irrelevant to most people. It answers questions they’re not asking and leaves little room for genuine conversation.

Rather than a “knockout punch” or a “rigid system,” Chatraw offers a “way” of doing apologetics that he calls “Inside Out Apologetics.” He explains, “The goal is for both sides to be willing to ‘try on the other story’ and see how it ‘fits’ rationally, psychologically, and experientially.” For the Christian, this involves internalizing certain questions and applying them prudently in conversations:

Inside:

  • What can I affirm [in the other’s story], and what will I need to challenge?
  • Where does this story lead, and is it internally consistent and livable?

Outside:

  • Where do competing views borrow from the Christian story?
  • How does the Christian narrative better address our experiences, observations, and history?

Chatraw cites Paul’s Areopagus speech as an example of an inside-out approach (Acts 17:22–31). Inside: “[Paul] quotes pagan sources and affirms where Athenian thinking is correct,” but he also “challenges their culture by using one of their own beliefs to demonstrate that God must be independent from his creation.” Outside: Paul invites the Athenians to view life through a Christ-centered lens: God “has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17:31).

If Acts 17:32 is any guide, inside-out conversations do not guarantee conversions, either for Paul or for us. They do lead to more productive conversations with those willing to invest the time, however. And that’s what budding Christian apologists should aim for.

The bulk of Telling a Better Story demonstrates how an inside-out approach might work in conversations about five common cultural assumptions in post-Christian America:

  1. I don’t need God or religion.
  2. You have to be true to yourself.
  3. The ultimate goal of life is to be happy.
  4. It’s okay to be spiritual, but not to say that your religion is the only way, or attempt to bring it into the public square.
  5. We’ve progressed beyond faith and myths to reason and science.

I don’t know about you, but I see variations on these assumptions every day in my social media feed. These are the questions people are asking, and therefore the questions Christians need to be prepared to discuss.

Of course, once you commit to having a conversation with someone who does not share your Christian faith, you’re committing to hearing their pushback on that faith. Chatraw rounds out his book with three common objections to Christianity: it’s oppressive, unloving, and untrue. He concedes— rightly, in my opinion — that our skeptical friends sometimes have a point. Christians have not always acted Christianly: liberatingly, lovingly, rationally. There are nonetheless reasons to believe, and to act on the belief, that the gospel is true.

Telling a Better Story concludes with a quote from Soren Kierkegaard: “Christ is the truth in the sense that to be the truth is the only true explanation of what truth is.” In post-Christian America, it is important that we Christians “speak the truth” as we answer the questions of our unbelieving neighbors. More importantly, however, we need to “embody the truth.” This, as Chatraw puts it, is the “greater apologetic.”

Book Reviewed
Joshua D. Chatraw, Telling a Better Story: How to Talk About God in a Skeptical Age (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2020).

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.

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