Next to Last Stand | Book Review


To be honest, I didn’t know what to expect from Next to Last Stand, Craig Johnson’s sixteenth novel featuring Walt Longmire, sheriff of (fictional) Absaroka County, Wyoming. The two previous novels—Depth of Winter and Land of Wolves—garnered polar opposite reactions from me: I hated the former and loved the latter. So, would I love or hate the newest installment in the Longmire series?

The book starts with the death of Charley Lee Stillwater, an African American veteran of World War II and the Korean War, who lived at the Veterans Home of Wyoming, which Longmire and his pals call by its old name, the Home for Soldiers and Sailors.

When the home’s administrator begins to process the items in Stillwater’s room, she discovers a Florsheim shoe box with $1 million in cash, an artist’s study for an unknown larger painting, and dozens of carefully annotated books about George Armstrong Custer, his “last stand” at Little Bighorn, and Cassilly Adams’ famous painting of the same. The original painting was destroyed in a fire in 1946, but it is well known due to the million or so copies printed and distributed to bars around the world by Anheuser-Busch.

The administrator calls in Longmire to figure things out, and the sheriff quickly realizes the obvious questions: Where did Stillwater get all this cash? How do the artist’s study and all the annotated books relate to one another? And is Stillwater’s death related to the answers of the first two questions?

As Longmire, his undersheriff and love interest Victoria “Vic” Moretti, and best friend Henry Standing Bear begin to look into things, a museum curator gets knocked out, the artist’s study disappears, Russian oligarchs make an appearance, along with a long lost heir, and Longmire starts to wonder whether that famous painting really burned up in the first place.

You’ll have to read the novel yourself to find out. As far as I’m concerned, this novel has everything that made me like the Longmire series in the first place. A smart sheriff in a small town solving believable crimes, all written up by a master stylist.

So, you could say I loved this novel. I hope Craig Johnson has at least one more Longmire novel in him. I know that Longmire is getting old and contemplating retirement, but there ought to be a sequel to Next to Last Stand. Right? I mean, the title of this novel all but demands one. I’ll be looking for it in the fall of 2021.

Book Reviewed
Craig Johnson, Next to Last Stand (New York: Viking, 2020).

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

The Better Way of Neighborly Love | Influence Podcast


“While the divisiveness of our current moment in the United States may be regrettable and fatiguing, it also represents an incredible opportunity for Christians,” writes Don Everts in the current issue of Influence magazine. He goes on to say, “As church leaders, our job is not only to help Christians recognize the temptations we’re facing, but also to highlight another way: a way of neighborly love that can cut through all the yelling and point others to the beauty of the gospel.”

I’m George P. Wood, executive editor of Influence magazine and your host. In this episode of the Influence Podcast, I’m talking to Everts about how Christians can be good neighbors in a divided culture. This conversation arises from his Influence cover story, “Neighboring for the Common Good,” which is based on his forthcoming book, The Hopeful Neighborhood, published by InterVarsity Press.

Don Everts is a writer for Lutheran Hour Ministries and associate pastor at Bonhomme Presbyterian Church in St. Louis, Missouri.

The Unspoken | Book Review


I learned about The Unspoken through Amazon First Reads. I have had good luck with other First Reads (especially Victoria Selman), and this novel looked interesting. So, here’s my evaluation:

The Unspoken by Ian K. Smith is a good-enough novel. It features Ashe Cayne, a former Chicago police detective, and an honest one at that, now a private investigator.

In this novel, Cayne is hired by the wife of one of Chicago’s wealthiest white businessmen to find their missing daughter. Along the way, a black acquaintance of the daughter is murdered, and Cayne believes the two cases are related. But the young black victim is nephew of one of Chicago’s most notorious gang lords, and the uncle wants revenge. Will Cayne find the girl and catch the killer before it’s too late?

On the whole, the main plot of this story worked for me. It wasn’t a great story–on the level of, say, Michael Connelly–but it was a page-turner, which is my primary rule for mystery novels. The one caveat I have about this book is the side plot involving a defrocked Catholic priest, which I thought was distracting and out of character for Ashe Cayne. If Cayne’s sideline righting old wrongs turns out to be a feature of forthcoming novels, I may skip them.

So, three stars for The Unspoken. It’s good read to while away the time.

Book Reviewed
Ian K. Smith, The Unspoken (Seattle, WA: Thomas and Mercer, 2020).

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

After COVID, What? | Influence Podcast


“With the massive disruptions we’re facing as a result of the COVID-19 crisis of 2020 and beyond, the problems could not be more disruptive or obvious,” writes Karl Vaters. “From the lockdowns, to the unspeakable pain of the illness and death of loved ones, to the colossal financial upheavals, it is likely that we’ve never faced such a long-term disruption in our lifetimes, possibly even surpassing those that resulted from the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.”

In this episode of the Influence Podcast, I’m talking to Karl Vaters about what churches—especially smaller churches—can do to recover from the massive disruptions of the COVID pandemic. I’m George P. Wood, executive editor of Influence magazine and your host.

Karl Vaters is teaching pastor at Cornerstone Christian Fellowship in Fountain Valley, California; a small-church leadership guru; and author of The Church Recovery Guide, published by Moody. (He’s also a longtime friend and fellow Assemblies of God minister.) He blogs regularly at KarlVaters.com.

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

The Auschwitz Detective | Book Review


The Auschwitz Detective is Jonathan Dunsky’s sixth murder mystery featuring Adam Lapid. (I reviewed the previous novels here, here, here, here, and here; along with a Lapid short story here.) Whereas those mysteries were set in Tel Aviv in the years immediately following Israel’s independence, for which Lapid fought, The Auschwitz Detective is set in July 1944 at Auschwitz-Birkenau, where Lapid, a Hungarian Jew, is a prisoner. It is, in my opinion, Dunsky’s best story so far.

Auschwitz was the chief murder factory of the Nazi regime, and it operated at peak killing efficiency from May–July 1944. Lapid arrived weeks before novel’s weeklong action begins, and his wife and two daughters were ripped from his arms upon arrival, then immediately gassed and cremated. Imminent death threatens Lapid and the other prisoners on every page, casting a pall of hopelessness and futility over the entire novel.

When Lapid learns that another inmate has been killed—not by the Nazis but by a fellow prisoner—his detective insights kick in, and he begins to work the case. (Before the Nazis overran Hungary, Lapid had served as a police officer.) It is the search for a murderous needle in the midst of a field of murderous haystacks, but Lapid’s sense of justice demands the mystery be solved.

It is in this quest that we find the humanity amidst Auschwitz’s bestial horrors. There are, in addition, friendship, love, and occasional moments of mercy in the story, They present glimmers of hope beyond the doom that we know is coming for the prisoners, though not, we know, for Adam Lapid. The Auschwitz Detective thus serves as a prequel to Dunsky’s previous stories, providing pathos and texture to Lapid’s personality and motivation.

I ask two basic questions when I evaluate murder mysteries: Did the story keep me turning pages to find out what happens next? And did the story push too hard against my willing suspension of disbelief? A yes and no answer, respectively, makes for a successful mystery. By that standard, The Auschwitz Detective succeeds wildly. I read it in one sitting, and its grim portrayal of life in that horrible concentration had the ring of authenticity.

So, five stars from me for Jonathan Dunsky’s latest Adam Lapid story, and I look forward to the next, which I understand is already in the works!

Book Reviewed
Jonathan Dunsky, The Auschwitz Detective (Self-published, 2020).

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

Taking Your Small Group to the Next Level | Influence Podcast


Small groups are a vital component of a church’s ministry. They extend the span of pastoral care, deepen group members’ spiritual formation, and provide a motivated cadre of volunteers for a church’s various ministries. At least that’s what they’re supposed to do. Too often, however, small groups get stuck in a rut, frustrating leaders and group members alike.

In this episode of the Influence Podcast, I’m talking to Jason Sniff about how to take your small group to the next level. I’m George P. Wood, executive editor of Influence magazine and your host.

Jason Sniff is small groups pastor at Eastview Christian Church in Normal, Illinois, and a licensed professional counselor with more than 15 years of experience developing healthy groups in private and public sectors. He is coauthor with Ryan Hartwig and Courtney Davis of Leading Small Groups That Thrive, recently published by Zondervan.

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

Understanding Spiritual Gifts | Book Review


Understanding Spiritual Gifts by Sam Storms describes itself as a “comprehensive guide” to the topic. Its author describes himself as “an Amillennial, Calvinistic, charismatic, credo-baptistic, complementarian, Christian Hedonist.” which helps you understand his theological and ecclesiological point of view (as well as affinity for John Piper!). He is founder of Enjoying God Ministries, senior pastor of Bridgeway Church  in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, and an erstwhile professor with a Ph.D. in intellectual history from the University of Texas at Dallas.

Storms has published four books and several articles on the topic of spiritual gifts, which he helpfully lists on pages xviii–xix, and from which he has adapted some of the material in Understanding Spiritual Gifts. The previous books include The Beginner’s Guide to Spiritual Gifts (2002, reprinted 2013), Convergence (2005), Practicing the Power(2017), and The Language of Heaven (2019). I have not read the earlier books, so I cannot how or to what extent this book draws on them.

Storms defines spiritual gifts this way:

A spiritual gift is when the Holy Spirit manifests his presence and imparts his power into and through individual believers to enable them to exceed the limitations of their finite humanity so that they might faithfully and effectively fulfill certain ministry tasks for the building up of the body of Christ (20).

The author divides his argument into six parts:

  1. The Nature, Purpose, and Prayerful Pursuit of Spiritual Gifts (1–66)
  2. The Debate over the Cessation or Continuation of Miraculous Gifts of the Spirit (67–146)
  3. Revelatory Gifts of the Spirit (147–202)
  4. Speaking in Tongues (203–238)
  5. Faith, Healing, and Miracles (239–278)
  6. Other Gifts and Apostleship (279–318)

As can be seen from these titles, Storms covers the topics that are a matter of sometimes heated debate between continuationists and cessationists, as well as among continuationists, that is, among believers who are Pentecostal, charismatic, and Third Wave.

Storms directs his strongest arguments against cessationism, though these arguments are always graciously expressed. He defines a cessationist as “someone who believes that certain spiritual gifts, typically those of a more overtly supernatural nature, ceased to be given by God to the church sometime late in the first century AD (or more gradually through the course of the next few centuries)” (69). By contrast, a continuationist is “a person who believes that all the gifts of the Spirit continue to be given by God and are therefore operative in the church today and should be prayed for and sought after” (69). He devotes an entire section of the book to refuting cessationism (69–145), but he maintains a running critique of cessationism throughout the book as he examines various biblical passages.

As a charismatic, Storms positions himself between classical Pentecostalism and the so-called Third Wave. He does not affirm Pentecostalism’s interpretation of baptism in the Holy Spirit as an experience separate from and subsequent to conversion, though he does not spend much time developing his critique of its doctrine either (47). Similarly, though he does not address the topic explicitly, it is apparent that he denies Pentecostalism’s understanding of tongues as initial physical evidence, even as he leaves open the possibility that God wants every believer to speak in tongues, if only as a private language of prayer. (225–231).

Storms cites the New Apostolic Reformation (NAR) as the context for discussing the debate regarding apostolic ministry. He writes, “I question whether there would be much of a controversy over the subject of apostleship were it not for the emergence of what is called the New Apostolic Reformation” (295). His treatment of the topic threads the needle between a cessationist denial of even the possibility of contemporary apostles on the one hand and NAR’s extravagant claims about its leaders apostolic giftedness on the other. Storms surveys the New Testament data, which points to a larger group of apostles than just The Twelve plus Paul, seeming to agree with Frank Chan’s definition of an apostles “remarkable leaders sent by God to establish new spheres of ministry by setting up the key governmental structures necessary for those ministries” (295). This definition is broad enough to encompass The Twelve plus Paul, others denominated “apostle” in the New Testament, and contemporary claimants as well.

I have drawn attention to how Storms distinguishes himself from cessationists, Pentecostals, and the Third Wave so that potential readers may understand where he is coming from theologically. However, aside from the extended debate with cessationism, Storms does not spend significant space on in-house continuationist debates. Rather, he works through the New Testament material patiently and thoroughly to arrive at a reasonable interpretation of what the various spiritual gifts are, what they’re for, how to seek them, and how to use them in individual and corporate contexts.

As a classical Pentecostal, I disagree with Storms’ dismissal of Pentecostalism’s doctrines of Spirit baptism and initial physical evidence. I also found his complementarianism irksome, arising as it did in a discussion of why Paul would permit women to prophesy but not to teach men (185–186), although thankfully this is the only reference to complementarianism in the book.

On the whole, however, I appreciated Storms’ exposition of the biblical material, along with his seasoned advice about how to use the gifts, and why. And his running critique of cessationism is worth the price of the book, which is quite reasonable for a text of this length. Whether you’re a pastor or a church member, I recommend Understanding Spirit Giftsas an addition to your library. You don’t have to agree with everything Storms writes to derive value from it

Book Reviewed
Sam Storms, Understanding Spiritual Gifts: A Comprehensive Guide  (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2020).

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

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