Secularism | Book Review

There are many ways to understand secularism. In Secularism, Andrew Copson notes that secularism can be understood as a catchall term for “non-religious philosophies, morals, and personal world views” and is thus akin to atheism or humanism (1). It can also be understood as a “political settlement” (xvii) or “approach to the ordering of communities, nations, and states” (1). Though Copson himself is a secularist in the first sense, his book is about secularism in the second sense.

In chapter 1, Copson derives a working definition of secularism from the French scholar Jean Baubérot, who identifies three components:

  • separation of religious institutions from the institutions of the state and no domination of the political sphere by religious institutions;
  • freedom of thought, conscience, and religion for all, with everyone free to change their beliefs and manifest their beliefs within the limits of public order and the rights or others;
  • no state discrimination against anyone on grounds of their religion or non-religious world view, with everyone receiving equal treatment on these grounds (2).

Chapters 2 and 3 provide a thumbnail sketch of the history of secularism in Western and non-Western societies (Turkey and India), respectively.

Chapters 4 and 5 outline the cases for and against secularism, respectively. The case for focuses on secularism as “the best religion-state arrangement to provide freedom, equality, peace, and democracy in a modern society” (47).

The case against notes Christian, Islamist, Hindu, and Communist pushback against the secularist political settlement. If the first three are examples of theocracy, loosely defined, the latter is perhaps an example of a-theocracy. The common types of argument advanced against secularism are (1) “romantic conservatism,” whereby “each person is rooted in a particular society and tradition and is bound to their fellow members of that society by culture” (70); (2) “the myth of neutrality,” which points out that secularism “explicitly favors non-religious ways of reasoning, living, and thinking over religious ones” (73); and (3) “a community of communities,” according to which “it is the group rather than the individual member of society that needs to be treated impartially by the state” (76).

Chapter 6 goes beyond Baubérot’s working definition to limn the conceptual boundaries of secularism by contrasting, among other things, “two types of Western secularism”: (1) “laicism,” which is inherently anticlerical and exemplified by France; and (2) “Judeo-Christian secularism,” which draws on both Christianity and the Enlightenment and is exemplified by the United States (80–81).

And chapter 7 identifies “hard questions” and “conflicts”: the relationship between secularism and democracy, education, blasphemy laws, religious expression (in terms of religious garb and symbols, as well as of conscience), religious diversity, and the challenge of political religion (e.g., Islamism and Hindutva, among others).

An Afterword looks at the future of secularism, concluding that it is “the best way of organizing our common life in a way that is fair to all in the context of diversity” (125).

As a Christian in America, which has no living memory of an established church, I resonated with Copson’s working definition of secularism. What he later calls “Judeo-Christian secularism” is simply the way we have done things for over two centuries. By the same token, I can understand the criticisms of secularism he outlines in chapter 5, insofar as many secularists—including Copson?—seem to argue that secularism as a political settlement ultimately depends on secularism as an ideology. I disagree with that argument because I think it’s false, because I doubt it’s neutral, and because in effect it tends to accord more and more power to the state to the detriment of other forms of power in society.

Regardless, however, Copson’s Secularism is a brief and helpful overview of the subject and well worth reading by the nonreligious and religious alike.

Book Reviewed
Andrew Copson, Secularism: A Very Short Introduction (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019).

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

Win the Day | Book Review

My friend Mark Batterson has a new book out today. It’s called Win the Day: 7 Daily Habits to Help You Stress Less and Accomplish More. I interviewed Mark about the book on the Influence Podcast a few weeks back. Take a listen!

I also recommended the book in the forthcoming issue of Influence magazine. Here’s what I wrote:

“Almost anybody can accomplish anything if they work at it long enough, hard enough, and smart enough,” writes Mark Batterson. In Win the Day, he identifies seven “daily habits” that will help readers “stress less and accomplish more.” Written with Batterson’s trademark combination of biblical insight, historical and scientific anecdotes, and practical application, this book will get your 2021 off to a good start. Today is the best time to start planning and working for a new year better than the old one.

As always, if you like my recommendation, please click “Helpful” on my Amazon review page.

My Year in Podcasting | 2020

I host the weekly Influence Podcast. Below are the 35 conversations I hosted with a variety of Christian leaders this past year. For all episodes, visit

And if you’re looking for past years’ podcasts, here are the links: 2019 Podcasts |  2018 Podcasts | 2017 Podcasts | 2016 Podcasts | 2015 Podcasts.

Episode 238. Diane Langberg, “Christ Used His Power Redemptively, and So Should We!”

Episode 237. Mark Batterson, “Seven Habits That Reduce Stress and Increase Productivity”

Episode 236. Gary Tyra, “The Dark Side of Discipleship”

Episode 235. David Docusen, “Becoming a Church that Crosses Racial and Economic Divides”

Episode 234. Priscilla Pope-Levison, “Eight Models of Evangelism”

Episode 233. Beth Grant and Crystal Martin, “Moving the Ministry of Women from Theology to Practice”

Episode 232. Chris Colvin and Dick Hardy, “Improving Your Preaching in the Coming Year”

Episode 231. Jeffery Portmann, “Pioneers, Settlers, and the Local Church”

Episode 230. Don Everts, “The Better Way of Neighborly Love”

Episode 229. Karl Vaters, “After COVID, What?”

Episode 228. Jason Sniff, “Taking Your Small Group to the Next Level”

Episode 227. Scott Sauls, “Outrage Culture vs. Gentle Jesus”

Episode 226. Joshua Chatraw, “A Better Way of Doing Apologetics”

Episode 225. Eric Kniffin, “Where Is the Supreme Court Going with Religious Freedom?”

Episode 224. Mark DeYmaz, “The Multiethnic Church as a Solution to Racism”

Episode 223. Mark Entzminger, “How to Make Your Church Spiritually Safe for Kids”

Episode 222. Alex Bryant, “What Racial Reconciliation Requires”

Episode 221. Tim Enloe, “Baptism in the Holy Spirit”

Episode 220. John Davidson, “How to Relaunch Your Church”

Episode 219. Chuck DeGroat, “The Narcissistic Leader”

Episode 218. Jay Kim, “After Digital Church, What?”

Episode 217. Don Everts, “Messy Prayers, Loud Tables, and Open Doors”

Episode 216. Alan Ehler, “How to Make Big Decisions Wisely”

Episode 215. John Davidson, “How to Lead When Your Church Is Closed”

Episode 214. Jason Thacker, “What Christians Should Know about Artificial Intelligence”

Episode 213. Joe Dallas, “When Someone You Love Is Gay”

Episode 212. Dr. Brandon Crowe, “A Biblical Approach to Productivity”

Episode 211. John Mark Comer, “How to Ruthlessly Eliminate Hurry from Your Life and Ministry”

Episode 210. Meghan Musy, “How to Read Proverbs for Preaching”

Episode 209. Dan Busby and Warren Bird, “What Effective Board Governance Looks Like”

Episode 208. Tommy Barnett, “The Power of ‘What If?'”

Episode 207. Doug Clay, “What’s Happening in the Assemblies of God Today?”

Episode 206. Amy Farley, “Ministry in the Aftermath of Sexual Violence”

Episode 205. Matthew Kim, “How to Improve Your Preaching in 2020”

Episode 204. Scott Wilson, “Setting Your Church’s Agenda with Prayer”

Christ Used His Power Redemptively, and So Should We! | Influence Podcast

“Jesus uses his power to protect, to expose, and to restore dignity,” writes Dr. Diane Langberg in her book, Redeeming Power. “He calls his people to be in the world using our power under his authority, displaying his character by speaking truth, shedding light, and tending and protecting the vulnerable. How does this become a reality in the lives of individual Christ followers?”

That’s the question I’m exploring with Dr. Langberg in this episode of the Influence Podcast, the final episode of the 2020 season. I’m George P. Wood, executive editor of Influence magazine and your host.

Dr. Diane Langberg is an internationally recognized psychologist and experienced counselor. She directs her own counseling practice, cofounded the Global Trauma Recovery Institute at Missio Seminary in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and serves on the board of GRACE (Godly Response to Abuse in a Christian Environment). Her most recent book is Redeeming Power: Understanding Authority and Abuse in the Church, published by Brazos Press.

P.S. I reviewed Dr. Langberg’s Redeeming Power here. If you like my review, please click “Helpful” on my Amazon review page.

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

Understanding Folk Religion | Book Review

Many people who convert to Christianity nevertheless continue to believe and practice elements of the religions from which they have deconverted. The authors of Understanding Folk Religion describe the result as “two-tier” or “split-level” Christianity (15). Their book explains why the split persists despite the teaching of missionaries and church leaders, and how to move split-level Christians toward a more integral faith and practice.

The argument of Understanding Folk Religion unfolds in four sections. In the first section, the authors outline a four-step process called “critical contextualization” (21), which helps missionaries and church leaders understand why converts continue to practice their old religious ways and how to minister effectively to them given those reasons. The four steps are (1) “phenomenological analysis,” (2) “ontological critique,” (3) “critical evaluation,” and (4) “missiological transformation” or “transformative ministries” (21–29). 

The authors also develop a model for understanding religion that incorporates organic and mechanical “root metaphors” (45–47) and a three-tiered “scale of transcendence” (47–48) to help readers “compare and contrast different types of belief systems” (45). The three tiers are “this world—seen,” “this world—unseen,” and “other worlds—unseen” (47–48). Folk religion pertains to the unseen—i.e., non-empirical—aspects of this world, the tier where supernatural beings (organic root metaphor) and forces (mechanical root metaphor) impact peoples’ lives in the present.

The reason why Christian converts continue to practice old religious ways alongside their new faith is because missionaries and church leaders have not demonstrated the applicability of the new faith to the existential concerns the old ways address. Section two describes four concerns in particular: “the meaning of life and death” (chapter 5), “human well-being and misfortune” (chapter 6), “guidance and the unknown” (chapter 7), and “right and wrong.” Section three describes how folk-religious practices and organizational structures both express and reinforce folk-religious beliefs.

Sections two and three constitute a phenomenological analysis of folk religion, the first step in the authors’ four-step process, and the one that missionaries and church leaders typically spend little time performing. Section four runs quickly through the remaining steps in the process, which usually garner missionaries’ and church leaders’ greatest attention. Throughout, the authors’ intention has been practical. Their central argument is that “understanding the religious manifestations of the folk (common people in any socioreligious context) can itself be a means to lead appropriate ministry meeting people’s felt needs and issues” (392).

Several points of both affirmation and critique are worth making. 

First, affirmation: Though the authors draw most of their examples from folk religions outside the U.S.—which reflects their ministry experience as foreign missionaries and academic training as anthropologists and missiologists—both their critical contextualization process and three-tiered model of religion have direct application to the mission of the church within the U.S. too. Though Christianity has long been the dominant formal religion in the U.S., its practitioners still turn to folk-religious beliefs and practices to manage their everyday lives. One thinks here not merely of New Age and Eastern meditation practices increasingly utilized by even Christians, but especially of the prosperity gospel, which though it cites Scripture, is basically a mechanical approach to good fortune involving the use of magical words such as “I confess,” “I claim,” and the like.

This raises a point of critique, however. The authors understand folk religion in distinction from the transcendent spiritual and the immanent empirical. The former points to the beliefs and practices of formal religions such as Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism; while the latter describes, at least in a Western context, the beliefs and practices of modern science.

The problem with this understanding is twofold: First, at least for Christianity, the “formal” religion explicitly addresses the concerns of “folk” religion. This suggests that the distinction between the two is not hard and fast. This suggestion is confirmed by the authors’ insistence that missionaries and church leaders address in Christian terms the legitimate existential concerns that folk-religious beliefs and practices raise. If Christianity can do this, however, what difference is there between the formal and the folk dimensions within Christianity?

If the difference can be elided, the obvious question is why Christian missionaries and church leaders have so often missed the “excluded middle” (89) of folk religion in their missional efforts. The answer, which the authors themselves point to, is found in the post-Enlightenment division between a totally transcendent supernaturalism and a totally immanent naturalism. Ironically, then, as Western missionaries have critiqued the syncretism of non-Western Christian converts, they have unwittingly practiced an Enlightenment-tinged syncretism of their own.

This Enlightenment-tinged Christianity points to a second critique. As Christian influence continues to fade in Western European and North American countries, the nature of folk religion may very well shift. Already, many people in those societies pick and choose from a smorgasbord of Eastern religious practices—Buddhist mindfulness, Hindu yoga, Confucian Qi. This includes people who identify as Christians. But once formal religious affiliation disappears, what does folk religion become? If secularism erases the unseen transcendent world from people’s spiritual and moral imagination, but it cannot erase the existential issues that traditional folk-religious beliefs and practices address, what form will folk religion take? In an increasingly secularizing world, it may be necessary to secularize the very concept of religion itself in order to understand, from a Christian point of view, the religionless religion that people now practice. One attempt in that direction is David Zahl’s excellent, Seculosity: How Career, Parenting, Technology, Food, Politics, and Romance Became Our New Religion and What to Do about It.

Despite these criticisms, Understanding Folk Religions is an insightful book that should be read by missionaries and church leaders, as well as missiologists and theologians. It is an academic book, so it is intellectually demanding of readers at many points. Nevertheless, it illuminates both why Christians continue to practice their old religions despite repeated discipleship otherwise, and how to move them toward a more integral Christian faith and practice.

Book Reviewed
Hiebert, Paul G., R. Daniel Shaw, and Tite Tiénou. Understanding Folk Religion: A Christian Response to Popular Beliefs and Practices. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1999.

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

The Universe Next Door | Book Review

The subtitle of James W. Sire’s The University Next Door calls the book “a basic worldview catalog.” Chapter 1 defines the term worldview and enumerates eight questions worldviews ask. Chapters 2–10 describe how nine worldviews answer these questions, beginning with Christian theism, which is Sire’s own worldview and the perspective of the book as a whole. Chapter 11 outlines four criteria for choosing an adequate worldview. Finally, chapter 12 identifies issues Christian theists need to address that have arisen since 2009, when the previous edition of the book was published.

Sire’s definition of worldview is lengthy, but he summarizes it under four headings. A worldview is “a commitment” that can be “expressed in a story or a set of presuppositions,” which make certain “assumptions that may be true, conscious, [and] consistent,” and that forms “the foundation on which we live” (8–9). In other words, a worldview is a matter of heart (affection), head (intellection), and hands (action).

The eight questions worldviews ask concern what is “really real”; “the nature of external reality” and of “human being”; “what happens to a person at death”; whether it is “possible to know anything at all,” including “right and wrong”; “the meaning of human history”; and what “personal, life-orienting core commitments are consistent with this worldview” (8–9).

Using this definition and these questions, Sire describes and critiques nine worldviews in successive chapters: Christian theism, deism, naturalism, nihilism, existentialism, Eastern pantheistic monism, New Age spirituality without religion, postmodernism, and Islamic theism.

According to Sire, the adequacy of any worldview depends on four considerations (271–273): “inner intellectual coherence,” comprehension of “the data of reality,” and explanatory success—i.e., it should “explain what it claims to explain.” Finally, a worldview should be “subjectively satisfactory,” meeting “our sense of personal need.” These criteria are primarily intellective—logical coherence, empirical adequacy, and explanatory power. Subjective satisfaction is affective. Though Sire’s definition of worldview notes that it is a foundation of action, the livability of a worldview does not here factor into Sire’s account of a worldview’s adequacy. (Interestingly, however, this does arise in his discussion of specific worldviews.)

Sire died in 2018, so the sixth edition of The Universe Next Door is posthumous. The text is largely identical to the fifth, with these exceptions: Sire wrote chapter 12 and an appendix with diagrams prior to his death. Additionally, Jim Hoover, Sire’s longtime editor, updated some references and incorporated new sidebars at various points throughout.

It has been said that one’s greatest strength is also one’s greatest weaknesses, an adage that applies to books as well as people. The strengths of the book are its clarity of expression and simplicity of analysis. Regarding clarity, Sire writes well about complex ideas, using illustrations from both high and popular culture. While thinking through ideas and their consequences is always hard work, the hard work is less hard in this book because of Sire’s manner of expression. 

Regarding simplicity of analysis, anyone who attempts a survey of worldviews (or religions) must face the bewildering variety of differences both between and within worldviews (and religions). The trick is to provide an analytically simple description of a worldview that identifies its most salient features without papering over substantive differences among adherents of that worldview. Sire’s eight questions help him accomplish both tasks. The questions themselves interrogate the most salient features of any worldview. And where there are differences among the worldview’s adherents, or counterarguments to criticism, Sire strives to make those plain.

The analytic simplicity of The Universe Next Door is also a weakness, however. This is because, first and foremost, there are different and perhaps better ways to arrange the subject matter. For example, Christian theism, deism, and Islamic theism all have dualistic metaphysics that distinguish sharply between the Creator and creation. By contrast, naturalism, Eastern pantheistic monism, and the New Age are basically monistic, eliding any such metaphysical distinction. The differences between dualism and monism result in certain family resemblances among dualist and monist worldviews, respectively, even as those resemblances embody contradictory tenets in each family member. For example, both Christian and Islamic theism are dualist (Creator-creation distinction) and monotheist (only one ultimately real God). But they interpret that monotheism in fundamentally contradictory ways, Christian monotheism being trinitarian and Islamic theism being unitarian.

Second, several of the worldviews can be understood more appropriately as variations on a larger worldview than as distinct worldviews themselves. Like the previous criticism, this is a problem of taxonomy. The best examples of this taxonomic problem are naturalism, nihilism, existentialism, and some versions of postmodernism. Naturalism is fundamentally a metaphysical commitment. Sire writes, “In naturalism it is the nature of the cosmos that is primary; for now, with an eternal Creator God out of the picture, the cosmos itself becomes eternal—always there, though not necessarily in its present form, in fact certainly in its present form” (57). Nihilism, existentialism, and some versions of postmodernism can be seen as  attempts to think through and live out the implications of this naturalism, rather than as separate worldviews.

This taxonomic critique does not negate the truth or helpfulness of Sire’s analysis, though it does remind readers (and would-be writers) that there is more than one way to skin a cat.

Finally, critics of earlier editions of The Universe Next Door also pointed out the intellectual, even propositional bias of its author. (I first encountered the book in its second edition, and I own and have read each successive edition.) It is a measure of Sire’s intellectual humility and willingness to learn that he took these critiques to heart and continued to improve both his understanding of worldview generally and his analysis of specific worldviews over the nearly five decades of this book’s existence. It is a shame that there will not be a seventh edition, due to Sire’s passing.

The Universe Next Door has demonstrated its usefulness as a textbook in college classrooms since its first publication in 1976,  especially in evangelical schools. It offers fair-minded descriptions of non-Christian worldviews, even as it tacitly provides an apologetic for Christian theism. Outside the classroom, readers interested in worldviews generally or the Christian worldview specifically will find the book to be a congenial and helpful guide.

Book Reviewed
Sire, James W. The Universe Next Door: A Basic Worldview Catalog. 6th ed. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2020.

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

Revelation: The End Times and the Never Reached | Book Review

The Book of Revelation is not easy to read. It is comprised of three literary genres (prophecy, apocalyptic, epistle) and uses grotesque images (dragon, beasts, prostitute, plagues, wars) to convey its message to readers, which centers around two eternal outcomes: heaven and hell. Captivated by these images and attempting to interpret their meaning, readers over the past two millennia have invented detailed scenarios about when and how the world ends.

Unfortunately, these speculations miss the eminently practical point of the book, which was addressed to churches in Asia Minor to guide them through the persecution many of them were experiencing. It is the great merit of Chris L. Carter’s Revelation: The End of Times and the Never Reached that it focuses like a laser on what John the Revelator wanted his readers — and by extension, us — to do.

For Carter, the practical point of Revelation can be stated as a question: “Will we stay committed to the mission when it will cost us our money, our homes, and our lives?” That, in various ways, was the question underlying Christ’s letters to the seven churches, which are found in chapters 2–3. But while Carter dips in and out of various chapters of the book, his focus throughout is on Revelation 7:9–12, which paints a vision of God’s preferred future for his creation and grounds the certainty of that vision in the character of God himself.

What Carter calls “A Bold Son of Victory” comes from verses 9–10. It depicts an eternal, heavenly future in which God’s people are drawn from “every nation, tribe, people and language.” God’s preferred future is the vision toward which the churches of Asia Minor, and churches throughout the world today, are called to work. The central question is whether they in their time and we in ours will stay faithful to this task in the face of the adversity that is sure to come.

What Carter calls “A Humble Song of Praise” comes from verses 11–12. In the midst of staying true to God’s preferred future, the Church experiences adversity and loss. It makes sacrifices, and sometimes gets sacrificed by the powers that be. In such times, the Church is thrust back on its faith in God. What assures the Church that the sacrifices they have made to fulfill God’s vision of one new humanity redeemed by Christ has been worth it? The very character of God, described and praised in the saints’ humble song: “Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God, forever and ever!” (I’m using Carter’s translations for both songs.)

By focusing his reading of Revelation through the lens of 7:9–12, Carter puts the Church’s mission at the forefront of Christian living. Our beliefs must be true, and our lives must be pure, but if we are not working toward spreading the gospel such that the nations, tribes, people, and language groups come to God, we have fallen short of our divine calling.

I enthusiastically commend Carter’s Revelation to all Christian readers, but especially to my fellow Pentecostals of the Assemblies of God tribe. It calls us back to God’s preferred future for humanity and to our missional task. Finally, it encourages us to remain faithful regardless of the cost, for God is worthy of our work and worship.

Book Reviewed
Chris L. Carter, Revelation: The End Times and the Never Reached (Springfield, MO: Assemblies of God World Missions, 2020).

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

Harnessing the Power of Tension | Book Review

Sam Chand argues that “tension is both inevitable and, at least in many cases, desirable in life and leadership.” If his argument seems counterintuitive to you, Harnessing the Power of Tension is a must read. Rather than avoiding tension, Chand counsels leaders to lean into it in order to experience the synergy that results from balancing competing interests and concerns. Leaning into tension doesn’t mean allowing destructive conflict, however. Properly managed, tension leads to greater creativity, teamwork, and productivity, whether at home, business, or church.

Book Reviewed
Samuel R. Chand, Harnessing the Power of Tension: Stretched But Not Broken (Stockbridge, GA: Whitaker House, 2020).

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

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