A Little Book for New Preachers | Book Review


Matthew D. Kim is associate professor of preaching and ministry at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, Massachusetts, as well as director of its Haddon W. Robinson Center for Preaching. He describes A Little Book for New Preachers as “a primer or introduction to preaching focusing on the characteristics of what makes for effective sermons and faithful preachers” (p. 14). Kim divides his material into three parts:

  1. Why Study Preaching?
  2. Characteristics of Faithful Preaching
  3. Characteristics of Faithful Preachers

In a cultural era in which preaching is often denigrated, Kim makes a case for both the practice and formal study of preaching in Part One. After outlining several reasons for preaching, Kim concludes: “Preaching is essential to the life of God’s people because understanding and applying the Word of God is essential” (p. 52). The goal of preaching, in other words, is “to make disciples” (p. 44, cf. Matthew 28:19–20). Preaching is not the only way to do this, of course, but the Church has long found it to be an important, if not the most important way to do it.

Part Two turns to three characteristics of “faithful preaching: interpretation, cultural exegesis, and application. The material on interpretation and application is good. I especially appreciated the chapter on cultural exegesis, however. “Every congregation consists of people from different personal experiences, cultures, and backgrounds,” Kim writes, “even if outwardly they seem homogeneous” (p. 72). And that applies doubly outside a church’s four walls. The goal of cultural exegesis is “not to compete with the culture but rather to comprehend it for the sake of effective proclamation of God’s Word” (p. 73). I encourage pastors to pay attention to this chapter especially, and to consider reading Kim’s longer book, Preaching with Cultural Intelligence (Baker Academic). Those of us who preach need to know the cultural blind spots we all too often have when reading and preaching the Bible.

Finally, Part Three identifies three qualities preachers need to have to be effective: being pastoral and loving, being a person of character and integrity, and being prayerful and Spirit-led. “Preaching ability and charisma are inadequate to sustain a long-term, fruit-yielding ministry,” Kim writes (p. 106). Character is needed. In its absence, preachers are tempted to “fall into various destructive patterns of sin, which abruptly curtail their ministries and hurt their families and congregations” (p. 107). At the end of the day, the quality of the preacher matters as much as the quality of his or her sermons. Your whole speaks, not just your words.

Although Kim wrote his Little Book for “new preachers,” old preachers—which includes me—can read the book profitably as a refresher on homiletical basics.

Book Reviewed
Matthew D. Kim, A Little Book for New Preachers: Why and How to Study Homiletics (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2020).

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

Snakes and Ladders | Book Review


Snakes and Ladders is the third installment in Victoria Selman’s murder mystery series featuring Ziba MacKenzie, former British Special Forces officer, now “freelance offender profiler and serial killer expert,” as one character describes her in the book. (See my previous reviews here and here.)

It is four stories rolled into one: First, Ziba’s collaboration with New Scotland Yard as they hunt for the Pink Rose Killer, so called because PRK places a pink rose next to victims’ bodies. Second, PRK’s backstory, told in flashback sequences, which explain the motive behind the murders, at least partially. Third, Ziba’s interactions with Dr. Victor Sange, the Butcher of Balliol, a hyper-intelligent Oxford don with a penchant for murder, who claims to know PRK’s identity and who likes to cultivate disciples, even from prison. Sange is serving time for murder in England but awaiting extradition to the U.S. for capital crimes committed there. And, finally, Ziba’s evolving relationship with Jack Wolfe, the only journalist to whom PRK corresponds, but whose relationship with Ziba keeps putting him in personal and professional danger.

All told, this was a well-crafted murder mystery that kept me turning pages, my number-one requirement in books of this sort. At first reading, I didn’t see any plot holes and didn’t experience any moments where my willing suspension of disbelief was challenged. However, one character, introduced at the start of the story, struck me as a bit “off,” and toward the end of the story, even Ziba took notice. I’m sure that “offness” will play a role in Selman’s next book, since that character announced a last-page plot twist that I didn’t see coming at all.

I look forward to the fourth installment in this series, which is quickly becoming one of my favorites as old warhorses like Jack Reacher and Walt Longmire are losing my interest. Highly recommended!

Book Review
Victoria Selman, Snakes and Ladders (Seattle: Thomas & Mercer, 2019).

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

Resilient Faith | Book Review


Christianity in the United States is a mile wide but an inch deep.

The faith, especially its Protestant variety, has exerted considerable influence on the nation’s history and culture. A supermajority of citizens continue to identify themselves as believers. On the whole, evangelical churches — where evangelical serves as a theological descriptor, not a political one — are holding steady even as liberal Protestant congregations and Roman Catholic parishes shed adherents.

Despite these things, many Christians feel that their influence on the broader culture is slipping away. A partial explanation comes from the last two decades’ rapid rise of the “Nones,” that share of the populace that picks “None of the above” when asked by pollsters to select their religious affiliation. Radical shifts in public opinion about moral issues such as same-sex marriage, drug use, and voluntary euthanasia constitute an additional explanation. And the once unheard-of criticism of Christian charities, such as the Salvation Army, for continuing to uphold biblical standards of sexual morality offers still another explanation.

None of these explanations, it should be noted, entail that America has entered a post-Christian phase. They do indicate that the nation is trending that way, however. If that trend worries you, I encourage you to read Gerald L. Sittser’sResilient Faith: How the Early Christian “Third Way” Changed the World.

Sittser is professor of theology at Whitworth University in Spokane, Washington, where he also serves as a senior fellow and researcher in the Office of Church Engagement. In Resilient Faith, he offers an account of how the Early Church forged a “Third Way” between accommodation to the surrounding idolatrous culture and isolation from it. He states his thesis at the outset of the book:

[T]he early Christian movement became known as the Third Way because Jesus himself was a new way, which in turn spawned a new movement — new in theology, in story, in authority, in community, in worship, and in behavior. Christian belief was so new, in fact, that it required Christians to develop a process of formation in the Third Way to move new believers from conversion to discipleship. … Rejecting both accommodation and isolation, early Christians immersed themselves in the culture as followers of Jesus and servants of the kingdom of God.

Over time, this third-way approach gained followers, and with increased followership, increasing influence. By the time Constantine converted to Christianity in A.D. 312, Christians already constituted a significant, though occasionally persecuted, minority within the Roman empire. Over the next century, they became the only legal imperial religion. The once powerless Church became powerful.

Ironically and tragically, this power began to deform the Church. The Third Way became the First Way, integrity giving way to accommodation. Whereas the early Christian movement assumed that idolaters needed a rigorous form of discipleship, the so-called catechumenate, to mold converts into the faith and life of Jesus Christ, the post-Constantinian Church began to assume that everyone under the sway of a Christian emperor was Christian by default. The real faith of early Christians became the nominal faith of Christendom.

And that tension between the real and the nominal brings us back to the feeling so many American Christians have that our cultural influence is slipping away. If it is — and I believe that it is — how should we respond?

One response is simply for American Christians to engage in cultural and political warfare. While I am a proponent of informed Christian engagement in politics and culture, I worry that this response, however effective it may be in the short term, is ineffective in the long term. Sittser captures the gist of the dilemma when he writes:

If anything, the harder Christians fight, the more precipitous the decline will be, for cultural power and privilege will come at an increasingly high price. Christians will either accommodate until the faith becomes almost unrecognizable, or they will isolate until their faith becomes virtually invisible.

The better response — the one called for by Jesus Christ himself — is the way of discipleship, “baptizing [the nations] in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19–20). According to that way, success is not defined in terms of the accrual of political power or cultural influence, though they may come, but by fidelity to the Lord Jesus Christ regardless of whether they come. He is the Way, so His way must become our way too.

Until American Christians decide that fidelity is more important than power and privilege, their Christianity will continue to be a mile wide and an inch deep, though getting narrower and shallower every day.

Book Reviewed
Gerald L. Sittser, Resilient Faith: How the Early Christian “Third Way” Changed the World (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2019).

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

Update on Amazon Reviewer Status


Most of you know about my #NerdGoal to become a Top 10 Reviewer on Amazon. (I’m currently a Top 500 Reviewer, ranked 331, so clearly I have a long way to go.) I just posted my 600th product review on Amazon, so I’m asking you to help me move up in the rankings by (1) reading my Amazon review and (2) clicking “Helpful” on it. Here are my last 25 reviews:

 

  1. Gerald L. Sittser, Resilient Faith: How the Early Christian “Third Way” Changed the World (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2019). https://amzn.to/2EtkQ5q

 

  1. Dan Busby and John Pearson, More Lessons from the Nonprofit Boardroom: Effectiveness, Excellence, Elephants!(Winchester, VA: ECFA Press, 2019). https://amzn.to/2Pp7A8w

 

  1. Ivan Satyavrata, Pentecostals and the Poor: Reflections from the Indian Context (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2017). https://amzn.to/2P424YF

 

  1. Jerry M. Ireland, Evangelism and Social Concern in the Theology of Carl F. H. Henry (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2015). https://amzn.to/37FGpgu

 

  1. Jeannie Clarkson, The Emotionally Intelligent Pastor: A Guide for Clergy and Other Church Leaders (Indianapolis, IN: Wesleyan Publishing House, 2019). https://amzn.to/35eLTNn

 

  1. Thomas S. Kidd, America’s Religious History: Faith, Politics, and the Shaping of a Nation(Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Academic, 2019). https://amzn.to/2QffyBJ

 

  1. Mark A. Noll, A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2019). https://amzn.to/2OoIVPn

 

  1. Lee Child, Blue Moon: A Jack Reacher Novel (New York: Delacorte Press, 2019). https://amzn.to/2WFNZ5G

 

  1. Mark DeYmaz and Harry Li, The Coming Revolution in Church Economics: Why Tithes and Offerings Are No Longer Enough, and What You Can Do About It (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2019). https://amzn.to/2CcDGNm

 

  1. Michael Connelly, The Night Fire: A Renée Ballard and Harry Bosch Novel. https://amzn.to/2NcNyvh

 

  1. Luke Goodrich, Free to Believe: The Battle over Religious Liberty in America. https://amzn.to/2pFkWTw

 

  1. Mark Batterson, Double Blessing: How to Get It. How to Give It. https://amzn.to/2IUAR7b

 

  1. Siang-Yang Tan, Shepherding God’s People: A Guide to Faithful and Fruitful Pastoral Ministry. https://amzn.to/2VGBIxn

 

  1. Scot McKnight, Pastor Paul: Nurturing a Culture of Christoformity in the Church. https://amzn.to/2pfBzoM

 

  1. Gary Thomas, When to Walk Away: Finding Freedom from Toxic People. https://amzn.to/2IIxC2D

 

  1. Thomas S. Kidd, Who Is an Evangelical? https://amzn.to/2lbsI5R

 

  1. David Kinnaman and Mark Matlock, Faith for Exiles: 5 Ways for a New Generation to Follow Jesus in Digital Babylon. https://amzn.to/2k0HawT

 

  1. NIV, Psalms and Proverbs. https://amzn.to/2ZEvEdg

 

  1. Jodi Magness, Masada: From Jewish Revolt to Modern Myth. https://amzn.to/2NCFcz6

 

  1. Don Everts, The Reluctant Witness: Discovering the Delight of Spiritual Conversations. https://amzn.to/326gOKc

 

  1. Ajith Fernando, Discipling in a Multicultural World. https://amzn.to/2KIRzrk

 

  1. Rick Richardson, You Found Me: New Research on How Unchurched Nones, Millennials, and Irreligious Are Surprisingly Open to Christian Faith. https://amzn.to/2P7aArE

 

  1. Glenn T. Stanton, The Myth of the Dying Church: How Christianity Is Actually Thriving in America and the World. https://amzn.to/2KgD1hw

 

  1. Hal Donaldson, Disruptive Compassion: Becoming the Revolutionary You Were Born to Be. https://amzn.to/2XX8NbS

 

  1. Glenn Harlan Reynolds, The Social Media Upheaval. https://amzn.to/2Ly0Nrp

 

Pentecostals and the Poor | Book Review


Pentecostals and the Poor began to take shape when the Asia Pacific Theological Association invited Ivan Satyavrata to present four lectures on the theme, “Power, Tradition, and Social Engagement,” at its fall 2011 General Assembly in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Satyavrata reworked those lectures into the resulting monograph, the inaugural volume in The APTS Press Occasional Papers Series. It outlines the author’s mature reflections on four topics: (1) the Pentecostal tradition of social engagement, (2) the biblical perspective on Pentecost and mission, (3) a Pentecostal theology of social engagement, and (4) the role of Pentecostal theological education.

Satyavrata is, in the words of his publisher’s website, “Senior Pastor of the Assembly of God Church in Kolkata, which has close to 4,000 people and a significant social outreach, providing education and basic nutrition for several thousand children in and around the city of Kolkata. He has played an active role in Christian leadership training as President of the Centre for Global Leadership Development (formerly SABC), Bangalore, of which he now serves as Board Chairman, and has recently been invited to serve as International Deputy Director for the Lausanne Movement in South Asia. His chief interest has been in issues relating to the Christian witness to people of other faiths.”

Regarding (1), Satyavrata argues that “strictly speaking there is no one Pentecostal tradition; what we do have is multiple Pentecostal traditions which bear a certain family resemblance.” That resemblance centers around “the immediate, manifested presence of the Holy Spirit experienced by the early Church in Acts [which] is normative for the Christian faith community today.” Crucially, social engagement has always been part of that tradition. “Pentecostals today offer not only spiritual refuge from the problems of this world but concrete and authentic social engagement alternatives. They have in fact done so from the very beginning [of Pentecostal history] as a natural extension of their evangelism and missionary efforts.”

Turning to (2), Satyavrata argues that biblically, “the Church’s mission [should be seen] as a continuation of the mission of Jesus.” Jesus’ self-conception revolved around the concept of the kingdom of God. According to Satyavrata, “three crucial aspects of Jesus’ teaching on the kingdom have bearing on our understanding of mission”: (a) announcement of the kingdom’s arrival, (b) demonstration of the kingdom’s reality, and (c) extension of God’s kingdom-rule. Just as the Spirit of God empowered Jesus’ mission, so the Spirit continues to empower the Church’s mission. “Pentecost made the church a witnessing church, and her witness was spontaneous, immediate, effective and directed to ever widening circles of men,” Satyavrata writes.

Based on critical reflection on the biblical witness, Satyavrata arrives at the following conclusion: “A theologically robust Pentecostal understanding of mission thus views mission in terms of God’s ongoing redemptive project of extending his kingdom-rule to people of all nations as the Holy Spirit empowers the whole Church to take the whole gospel to the whole world.”

Flowing out of this broad understanding of mission, Satyavrata then turns to (3) a Pentecostal theology of social engagement. At the outset, he makes the following statements: “The extraordinary success of the Pentecostal movement is largely due to its outreach to those on the periphery of society…. The genius of Pentecostalism has thus been its relevance to the powerless—its ability to penetrate enslaving power structures of the socially and economically marginalized.” American readers need to keep in mind as they read these words that Satyavrata is referring to the global Pentecostal movement, not just the expressions of that movement in America. (American Pentecostals are both like and very unlike Pentecostals throughout the rest of the world.) Satyavrata also notes that Pentecostals “have in general been better at doing it [i.e., social ministry] than articulating it in statements of faith or theological formulations.”

Following on his understanding of mission, Satyavrata notes the relevance of the kingdom concept to the church’s social ethic: “The kingdom ethic of Jesus is made operational within the charismatic community by the empowerment of the Holy Spirit and becomes thereafter the moral foundation for the life of the early church.” He then examines “how Pentecostal spirituality shapes Pentecostalism’s social response” by looking at five key features of that spirituality: prayer/worship, liberation, healing, community, and hope.

In the final section of his monograph, Satyavrata sketches (4) the role of Pentecostal theological education in mission. He defines theological education as “the Church’s mandate to disciple God’s people, further their growth in vocational giftedness and maturity in Christ, and thus equip them to fulfill the kingdom-mission of Christ.” This means that the aim of theological education is transformation holistically understood, including the transformation of (a) spiritual passion, (b) theological formation, (c) community, and (d) mission. He concludes: “Since education is for mission it must generate creative and fervent missionary engagement and make a difference in the whole world!”

Pentecostals and the Poor is a short, easily digested monograph worthy of your consideration. Although its origins lie in an academic context, its reasoning and conclusions are stated clearly and is well worth reading by pastors and other leaders in local churches.

(Full disclosure: he Satyavrata is a professor and friend of mine.

Book Reviewed
Ivan Satyavrata, Pentecostals and the Poor: Reflections from the Indian Context (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2017).

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

For the Love of God | Book Review


For the Love of God, edited by Jerry M. Ireland, examines “principles and practice of compassion in missions,” as the subtitle puts it. Part 1 examines principles, and Part 2 examines practices. Contributors are for the most part missionaries with practical experience and/or relevant academic training.

Part 1 includes five chapters: “Introduction” and “A Missionary Theology of Compassion” by Ireland; “Missions and Compassion: The Indigenous Principles” by Alan R. Johnson; “Defining Poverty” by JoAnn Butrin and A. Chadwick Thornhill; and “Best Practices in Compassionate Missions” by Suzanne Hurst.

Part 2 includes nine chapters: “Compassion and Unreached People Groups” by Jeff Palmer and Lynda Hausfeld; Counterintuitive Missions in a McDonald’s Age: Recovering the Apostolic, Incarnational Model to Integrating Gospel-As-Mission and Gospel-As-Deed” by Jean Johnson; “In Pursuit of Holistic Economic Development” by Brian Fikkert; “The Church’s Response to Injustice” by JoAnn Butrin, Suzanne Hurst, and Brandy Tuesday Wilson; “Orphans and Vulnerable Children” by Ireland; “Health Issues and the Church’s Response” by Karen Herrera and Paula Ireland; “Natural Disasters and the Church’s Response” by Jeffrey Hartensveld; “The Local Church and Faith-Based Organizations” by Jason Paltzer; and “Conclusion: For the Love of God” by Ireland.

Ireland summarizes “the approach of this text” in his Introduction:

This text addresses compassion in missions from a thoroughly evangelical perspective. As such, this text will center around three themes to which we will often return: biblical foundations, the local church, and development principles. The central thesis of this text is that these three themes must guide evangelical responses to compassion if we are to be faithful to Scripture and to the church’s uniquely redemptive purpose. We will argue that Christian compassion is fundamentally a matter of discipleship and that modern Christian missions often tends, contrarily, toward the professionalization of compassionate ministry. Such an approach robs local believers of their God-given mandate to love their neighbors (Matt. 22:39).

In other words, the Great Commission (Matthew 28:16–20) commands believers to make disciples of all “nations,” that is “people groups.” A necessary outcome of discipleship is compassionate individuals and congregations who minister to the needs of their neighbors holistically. In cross-cultural situations, missionaries’ primary work is to empower the local church to make compassionate disciples, rather than to do the work of the local church themselves.

Who should read this book? Missionaries are obvious candidates, especially those working in compassion-focused missions. Those preparing for missionary careers or those teaching them also are intended readers. However, I would also recommend the book to pastors, especially those whose churches sponsor compassion-focused missions or who send abroad short-term missions teams. The emphasis on empowering indigenous local churches to perform compassion ministries, rather than doing it for them, should affect the way U.S. churches fund their missions program, as well as how they utilize short-term missions teams.

The book includes a 14-page Bibliography, but not an index. Though an index would be helpful–indexes are always helpful in academic books–the specificity of the chapter topics obviates need for one.

Book Reviewed
Jerry M. Ireland, ed., For the Love of God: Principles and Practice of Compassion in Missions (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2017).

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

The Emotionally Intelligent Pastor | Book Review


If you are a pastor, you know that people are your “business.” We’re not the CEOs of widget factories or the purveyors of goods and services. Instead, we have a heart like the apostle Paul’s: “My dear children, for whom I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you” (Galatians 4:19).

That heart is intensely relational. Paul’s analogy of his ministry to the “pains of childbirth” is apt. Pastoring brings the great joy of bringing new Christian life into the world. However, it involves great pain too. Serving others in this way is not easy, but it is worth it.

Because people are our “business,” and because our “business” is both worthwhile and difficult, we need to be wise in the ways of people. The Bible is filled with wisdom in this regard. So is the discipline of psychology, which has coined the term emotional intelligence to describe it. In The Emotionally Healthy Pastor, Jeannie Clarkson brings the Bible and psychology into fruitful dialogue.

Clarkson is a Christian psychologist. Her doctoral dissertation researched, in the words of its title, “Pastoral Burnout: The Results of a Study Examining the Relationships of Emotional Intelligence and Performance-Based Self-Esteem with Burnout among Pastors.” She founded and operates Christian Care Connection, a counseling service in and around Toledo, Ohio.

Clarkson defines emotional intelligence as “the ability to (1) understand the ways people (including you) feel and react, and (2) use this knowledge to wisely avoid or smartly solve relational problems” (p. 36). She goes on to demonstrate why emotional intelligence is crucial to pastoral ministry and explain how to develop greater emotional intelligence.

Her book utilizes the framework of Daniel Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence, grounding it in Scripture and showing its applicability to pastoral ministry. In addition to real-life anecdotes from her own experience and that of others, she uses the fictional experiences of three pastors—megachurch Jim, midsize church Bill, and smaller church Susan—to illustrate the kinds of scenarios where emotional intelligence can improve pastoral health and effectiveness.

For Clarkson, emotional intelligence consists of four elements (p. 42):

  1. Personal Insight: Highly emotionally intelligent [EI] pastors possess a better understanding of their own emotions than do others.
  2. Personal Mastery: High EI pastors control and regulate their own emotions and reactions better than others.
  3. Relational Insight: EI-savvy pastors read, understand, and empathize with the emotions and reactions of other people better than most.
  4. Relational Mastery: Pastors with high emotional intelligence are better at emotional reasoning and more skilled at effective, persuasive communication than others.

While some researchers lean toward understanding emotional intelligence as an inborn trait, Clarkson, like Goleman, leans toward interpreting it as a developed skill.

She devotes most of The Emotionally Intelligent Pastor to explaining what each of the four elements is and how to develop better skillfulness with it. A chart on page 40 helpfully summarizes her advice:

Sixteen Skills and Habits of Emotionally Intelligent Pastors

Personal Insight Personal Mastery Relational Insight Relational Mastery
Monitoring your emotions Resetting your mind-set Listening attentively Building trust
Tuning in to self-talk Managing emotional triggers Tuning in to others Managing expectations
Identifying emotional triggers Communicating directly Knowing your team Empowering others
Asking for feedback Maintaining your passion Learning the landscape Managing conflict

 

Although Clarkson’s overall framework is based on Goleman’s, her book is more helpful to pastors than his for two reasons: First, it cuts quickly to the basic elements of emotional intelligence and how to develop them without getting lost in the research details. Second, it applies emotional intelligence solely to pastoral ministry.

I conclude with a statement that Clarkson calls “the big promise of emotional intelligence”: “Greater emotional intelligence leads to reduced stress and increased influence.” If in your current ministry, you’re experiencing the opposite—increased stress and reduced influence—I encourage you to read The Emotionally Intelligent Pastor. I think it will help.

Book Reviewed
Jeannie Clarkson, The Emotionally Intelligent Pastor: A Guide for Clergy and Other Church Leaders (Indianapolis, IN: Wesleyan Publishing House, 2019).

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

A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada | Book Reviewers


When first published in 1992, Mark A. Noll’s A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada quickly established itself as one of the best, if not the best, treatments of the subject. The second edition of that book revises, updates, and adds to the original text. Its length (592 pages) and price ($55.00) will limit its readership to scholars and students in undergraduate and graduate institutions, who are likely its intended demographic. As a Christian minister in the U.S., however, I heartily recommend it to my North American colleagues who are past their school years because it will enrich their understanding of the development of our faith in these lands.

Noll divides his treatment of the subject into five parts:

  1. Beginnings (17th century)
  2. Americanization (18th-century)
  3. The “Protestant Century” (19th century)
  4. Tumultuous Times (20th-21st centuries)
  5. Reflections

As can be seen from these divisions, the book tells the story—or perhaps, stories—of Christianity in the U.S. and Canada chronologically, though he sometimes jumps ahead of the chronology in order to show organic connections across the centuries.

The book begins with a nine-page analytical Table of Contents that outlines the topics in each chapter, as well as a Preface that briefly describes the revisions, updates, and additions to the 1992 edition. The chapters do not contain notes, but each one concludes with an up-to-date list of Further Readings for those interested in pursuing the topic in greater detail. The book ends with a Bibliography of General Works and an Index.

As a layman to the academic discipline of history, I won’t pretend to offer an academic review of this text. Instead, let me identify several aspects of the book that stood out to me as particularly helpful:

First, as Noll himself notes in the Introduction, “The ‘plot’ of this text centers on the rise and decline of Protestant dominance in the United States. Along the way, full consideration is paid to Canadian contrasts, both Catholic and Protestant.” In large part, this is the story of “evangelical America,” which grew in the 18th century, dominated the 19th, and fractured in the 20th. If you’re looking for a historical explanation of why so many U.S. evangelicals believe that America is a “Christian nation” or feel that their worldview should shape American culture, Noll provides one of the best.

Second, my favorite chapter of the book, if that’s allowable in a personal review of an academic work, is chapter 11, “The American Civil War.” Noll divides the chapter into two sections: “The Civil War as a Religious War” and “The Civil War as Turning Point.” The war both reflected the “Protestant Century,” as each side was intensely religious, and began the unraveling of “evangelical America,” because though each side “read the same Bible” and “prayed to the same God,” as Lincoln put it, their common faith could not resolve their deepest differences. The title of an earlier book by Noll states the matter well: The Civil War as a Theological Crisis.

Third, the comparison to the development of Christianity in Canada, whether in its French Catholic or Anglo Protestant varieties, was informative and humbling. To be honest, I didn’t know much about Canadian history generally, and Noll’s book helped begin to fill that deficiency. In the concluding chapter, Noll writes, apropos of the running comparison of American and Canadian forms of Christianity: “despite a national history without the ideology of special divine blessing, Canada has enjoyed an even better objective argument for having enjoyed the history of a ‘Christian nation’ than does the United States.” That’s a bitter pill to swallow, but a medicine we American Christians might want to consider taking, if only to alleviate our symptoms of nationalist pride.

Fourth, and finally, Noll raises the question of where Christians should find meaning in their histories of faith in the U.S. and Canada. He writes: “the history of Christianity in North America, as opposed to the history of North American Christianity, might not be so much about the gain or loss of culture influence as about ‘signs of contradiction,’ moments when the faith offered something unexpected to a person, a problem, a situation, or a region” (emphasis in original). He offers numerous examples of these contradictory signs, but concludes with this one: “They are illustrated supremely by the black acceptance of Christianity, offered as it was with a whip.” There’s much to unpack in these two brief quotes, but for those concerned with the practice of authentic Christianity, they need to be unpacked, for they demonstrate the “theology of the Cross” impinging on how we understand and write our history.

A final personal note: I had the privilege of taking two classes from Prof. Noll when he taught at Wheaton College, from which I graduated in 1991. He wouldn’t remember me—I studied philosophy, not history—but I remember him and his excellence as a teacher. I’ve read the majority of books he’s published, and I can honestly recommend each one.

Book Reviewed
Mark A. Noll, A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2019).

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

America’s Religious History | Book Review


American Christians, generally speaking, are ignorant of the history of their own religion in this country, let alone of other religions here. This is not due to a lack of excellent scholarly resources. If anything, there is a surfeit of excellent studies of American religion. The problem is that most Americans won’t read them because they are either too academic or too specific. (Or too long.)

Thomas S. Kidd is distinguished professor of history at Baylor University. His faith perspective is evangelical Christian generally and Southern Baptist specifically. His scholarly expertise is colonial and early U.S. history. Earlier this year, he published a two-volume survey, American History, for college students. Now, he’s published America’s Religious History, a single-volume introduction to that topic, also intended for college students—it’s published by Zondervan Academic—but readily accessible to a broad readership.

America’s religious history did not start with Christianity, of course, which was only introduced to the Western hemisphere beginning with Christopher Columbus in 1492. Kidd touches briefly on aspects of indigenous religious before colonization, but the main line of his story starts with first Catholic and then Protestant colonization efforts. While Catholicism always played an important role in the history of those lands that eventually became the United States, Kidd’s main focus throughout the book is on “the fate of Protestantism in America,” which is the nation’s “most powerful religious strain.” He does mention developments in other religions too, as well as in nonreligious, skeptical points of view.

As a Pentecostal Christian and ordained minister in the Assemblies of God, I was delighted by Kidd’s treatment of Pentecostalism in the last few chapters of the book. While I acknowledge that our tribe has problems—televangelist scandals, prosperity gospel preachers, etc.—our history also demonstrates a spiritual vitality and ethnic diversity that bode well for our future.

Kidd begins the book with three sentences that identify a thread running throughout America’s Religious History: “The story of American religion is a study in contrasts. Secular clashes with the sacred; demagoguery with devotion. Perhaps most conspicuously, religious vitality has existed alongside religious violence.” Readers looking for a chirpily cheery national history of Christianity specifically or religion generally will be disappointed by Kidd’s work. There’s much in America’s “lived religion,” its daily practice of faith, that is heartening, of course, but disheartening episodes abound too, especially when it comes to evangelicals and politics.

Kidd closes each chapter with a list of “Works Cited and Further Reading.” This list makes an excellent next step for readers who want go deeper on the historical developments surveyed in that chapter. While the publisher probably intends this book for use in a college classroom setting, I think it can also be used profitably by Sunday school classes, small groups, and book clubs. Or, of course, for the solitary reader seeking a better understanding of this nation’s religious history.

Book Reviewed
Thomas S. Kidd, America’s Religious History: Faith, Politics, and the Shaping of a Nation (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Academic, 2019).

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

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