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.

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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.

Liberty in the Things of God | Book Review


Robert Louis Wilken opens Liberty in the Things of God with this proposition, which American readers likely will find unobjectionable, if not self-evident: “Religious freedom rests on a simple truth: religious faith is an inward disposition of the mind and heart and for that reason cannot be coerced by external force.” And yet, throughout history, this seemingly unobjectionable, self-evident proposition has been more honored in the breach than in the observance.

Consider, for example, the history of Christianity, which was born in the fires of persecution. When Christians became Roman emperors, the formerly persecuted turned imperial power into a sword against pagans, Jews, and heretics. In the wake of the Reformation, imperial uniformity devolved into Wars of Religion and resulted in a patchwork of Catholic and Protestant kingdoms and principalities governed by the Latin formula cuius regio, eius religio — “whose realm, his religion.” Essentially, each kingdom or principality had its established church, and woe betide the people whose religion didn’t match their prince’s!

Exhausted by these religious conflicts, Enlightenment thinkers such as John Locke began to propose a better way. At first, this was tolerance of other religions. Tolerance is the willingness of a majority to countenance minorities; however, that willingness can wane. So tolerance gave way to freedom, which requires the state to protect religious freedom, especially that of the minorities, as a matter of believers’ natural right. The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution is a shining example of this kind of freedom: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

Unfortunately, this brief survey leaves the impression that Christendom was a problem the Enlightenment had to solve. This is a mistake because it overlooks the Christian history of the proposition I stated at the outset of this review. In reality, the Enlightenment drew on ideas that had been circulating among Christians for nearly 1,500 years. The Christian origins of religious freedom is the theme of Liberty in the Things of God.

Wilken traces the intellectual history of religious freedom to Tertullian (ca. 155–240), a  Christian apologist who lived in Roman North Africa and was evidently the first person in Western civilization to use the phrase “freedom of religion” (libertas religionis). “It is only just and a privilege inherent in human nature that every person should be able to worship according to his own convictions,” Tertullian wrote; “the religious practice of one person neither harms nor helps another. It is not part of religion to coerce religious practice, for it is by choice not coercion that we should be led to religion.”

For Tertullian and other Christian apologists of this era, religion was a matter of both individual conscience and corporate practice. Because it was a matter of individual conscience, religion had to be chosen not coerced, a choice made “only by words, not by blows,” as Lactantius (ca. 250–325), a later Christian apologist, put it. Because it was a matter of community practice, religious freedom pertained to groups, not just individuals. Regarding this, Wilken makes a salient point: “The phrase ‘freedom of religion’ enters the vocabulary of the West with reference to the privileges of a community, not to the beliefs of individuals,” or at least, not merelyto those beliefs.

Because religious freedom was for the early Christians a matter of both conscience and community, it necessitated limitations on the powers of government. Jesus Christ had said, “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s” (Mark 12:17), and Christians returned to this passage and others like it to limn the boundaries between the institutions of church and state.

While early Christian apologists such as Tertullian lived at a time when Christians were a persecuted and powerless, though rising, minority, most of Western Christian history has taken place with Christians as the powerful majority. The bulk of Wilkens’ book describes the long millennium between Constantine’s conversion (early fourth century) and the dawn of the Enlightenment (late 17th century), the bookends of Christendom. During this period, Christians donned the habits of pagan Romans and attempted to use government to pursue religious ends.

What’s fascinating in this topsy-turvy scenario is that Christian groups on the wrong side of state power continued to use the arguments pioneered by Tertullian and the early Christian apologists. They appealed to conscience to limit government’s power over a community’s religious practice. At the Diet of Worms (1521), Martin Luther famously explained his refusal to recant with these words: “My conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe.” He was speaking to Catholic authorities. Four years later in Nuremberg, when Lutheran magistrates tried to stop Franciscan nuns from practicing their Catholicism, Abbess Caritas von Pirckheimer wrote of the magistrates, “They knew very well that we had always obeyed them before in all temporal things. But in what concerned our soul, we could follow nothing but our own conscience.”

Conscience. Community. Limits. These were the touchstones of religious freedom that stemmed from Tertullian and other Christian apologists and continued to operate as such throughout Christendom whenever the powers that be overstepped their boundaries. When, therefore, John Locke and other early Enlightenment figures began to argue for first toleration and then freedom of religion, they were sowing seeds in ground long ago plowed by Tertullian and Lactantius.

I conclude my review with Wilkens’ closing words:

It was early Christian teachers who first set forth ideas of the freedom of the human person in matters of religion; it was Christian thinkers who contended that conscience must be obedient only to God; and it was the dualism of political and spiritual authority in Christian history that led to the idea that civil government and religious belief must be kept separate. The process by which the meditations of the past become the certainties of the present is long and circuitous. But by the eighteenth century ideas on religious liberty advanced by earlier thinkers had become the property of all…

These are the Christian origins of religious freedom, a historical story well worth Robert Louis Wilken’s telling of it.

Book Reviewed
Robert Louis Wilken, Liberty in the Things of God: The Christian Origins of Religious Freedom(New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 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.comwith permission.

How to Read Galatians for Preaching and Teaching | Influence Podcast


Paul’s letter to the Galatians is brief but theologically profound. It centers on the nature and implications of the gospel itself. The letter was born out of Paul’s controversy with the so-called Judaizers, and it continues to be a source of controversy among scholars today because of the so-called New Perspective on Paul.

In this episode of the Influence Podcast, I talk to Craig S. Keener about how to read Galatians for preaching and teaching. Keener is F. M. and Ada Thompson Professor of Biblical Studies at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky, and a world-renowned New Testament scholar. He is author of numerous books and commentaries, including a commentary on Galatians, forthcoming from Baker Academic on May 21, 2019.

ADDITIONAL CRAIG S. KEENER RESOURCES

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