Captain Nobody | Book Review


Newton Newman—“Newt” to friends and family—is a short, skinny, freckled ten-year-old boy who lives in the shadow of his small-town-famous older brother, Chris. Chris is varsity quarterback of the Ferocious Ferrets of Filmore High School, who, as Captain Nobody begins, face off against their cross-town rivals, the Chargers of Merrimac High, in the annual “big game.” In the opening chapter, Newt watches as his brother simultaneously scores the winning touchdown at the last second, gets a concussion, and goes into a coma as a result of the injury.

Newt may be invisible to most people—a running gag throughout the book is that people are shocked to discover that Chris has a younger brother. And yet, in many ways, he is the grease on his family’s skids, holding things together by cooking everyone breakfast, keeping track of his mom’s scattered real estate files, and in general knowing where everything goes and when. But with Chris in a coma in the hospital, Newt’s invisibility becomes so pronounced that even his parents begin to take him for granted.

But when Halloween rolls around, and Newt’s two friends (Cecil and JJ) encourage him to go trick or treating, he accidentally finds himself dressed in a ragtag of Chris’s clothes that his friends morph into a superhero costume. And thus, Newton Newman becomes Captain Nobody. He helps an old man with Alzheimer’s find his way home. He foils a bank robbery. He clears traffic so a plane can safely land on the highway. And all without intending to. The one superpower Newt doesn’t have is the ability to wake Chris up. Or does he? That’s the question readers wonder as Dean Pitchford writes his way toward the book’s heartwarming conclusion.

I read Captain Nobody along with my fourth-grade son’s lunchtime reading group, and the boys loved the story. It didn’t have the action or creativity of some of the other books we read, but the boys liked Newt and even identified with him a bit. For me, of the three books we read—the other two were Wings of Fire and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe—I liked Captain Nobody best. (Well, I liked it alongside Lewis’ classic children’s story. I hated Wings of Fire, though the boys loved it.) I liked it because Newt is a free-range, competent, caring kid who loves his family and holds them together in a difficult time.

Does Chris ever wake up? Read the book to find out.

Puffin Books says the book is appropriate for kids 8–12, grades 3–7. Having read this with fourth-grade boys, I think age 10 and grade 4 is just about right.

Book Reviewed
Dean Pitchford, Captain Nobody (New York: Puffin Books, 2009).

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

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The Unsaved Christian | Book Review


Matthew 7:21–23 is one of the most sobering passages of the Bible. “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven,” Jesus tells His disciples, “but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” What does it mean to say, “Lord, Lord”? Jesus explains: “Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’” Regardless of their displays of spiritual power, Jesus’ verdict is negative: “Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’”

Dean Inserra opens The Unsaved Christian with this passage because it so starkly portrays the self-deception of self-identified Christians whom Christ cannot identify as His own. “These petitioners Jesus spoke of loved to say, ‘didn’t we?’ when they should have been saying, ‘didn’t He?’” In other words, they practiced self-righteousness, attempting to merit salvation through powerful spiritual works, rather than receiving God’s gracious gift of righteousness in Christ through repentance and faith in Him.

Today, many self-identified American Christians don’t claim to prophesy or exorcize demons or work miracles, but the central insight of The Unsaved Christian is that they are nevertheless as lost as the “evildoers” of Matthew 7:23. They are Christians in name only, practitioners of cultural Christianity. “Cultural Christianity is a mindset that places one’s security in heritage, values, rites of passage (such as a first communion or a baptism from childhood), and a generic deity, rather than the redemptive work of Jesus Christ,” writes Inserra. He goes on to provide a taxonomy of eight types of cultural Christians:

  1. Country Club Christian: “Self-focused, not missional; church just happens to be the social club of their preference.”
  2. Christmas & Easter Christian: “Holds the Christian holidays close with sentimentality, but the implications of these holidays seem to have little impact on daily life.”
  3. God & Country Christian: “Is ‘proud to be an American, where at least I know I’m free’; digests everything first as an American or member of a certain political party, not as a believer. Can have blinders on to what really matters.”
  4. Liberal Social Justice Christian: “Feels strongly about specific social justice issues; compromises biblical teachings in light of cultural whims; believes that politicians and legislation can fix the world.”
  5. Good Guy Next Door Christian: “Believes God wants people to be good and kind to each other as taught in most world religions; Jesus just so happens to be the mascot, but the specifics of Christianity aren’t really relevant.”
  6. Generational Catholic Christian: “Generally either views Catholicism as a heritage or carries significant guilt to be loyal to its tenants.” (I think Inserra means “tenets.”)
  7. Mainline Protestant: “Generally believes vague things about the Bible but is prone to discard it in favor of the pressing beliefs of the day. Proclaims God’s love in terms of license to seek comfort.”
  8. Bible Belt Christian: “Displays external forms of religiosity and would be offended to be called an atheist, but in actuality, Jesus has little impact on their lives.”

These eight varieties of cultural Christians are ideal types, obviously, but they do describe a lot of the features of what passes for Christianity in contemporary American culture.

For each variety, Inserra elaborates on what it mistakes the gospel for, identifies starting points for gospel conversations, and shows how the gospel, correctly understood, both challenges and provides a remedy for it. Take the Bible Belt Christianity, for example. It is typically found in the South, which Flannery O’Connor described as “Christ-haunted.” Its “unofficial liturgy” is country music, and Inserra provides an insightful look at the religious outlook of three contemporary country songs.

Based on those songs, he comments: “Sadly, many people in the Bible Belt are haunted by the idea of Christ, while not understanding His love for them. The judgment of God lingers in their minds. Believing the gospel would allow them to understand that it is the kindness of God that can actually lead them to repentance (Rom. 2:4). With an awareness of God and our sins, but not the gospel, one is only left with country music theology, hoping God will let us into heaven one day after we have some fun on earth.”

Inserra closes The Unsaved Christian by enumerating three things necessary for evangelizing cultural Christians: “a refusal to be in denial, gospel clarity, and boldness to speak the truth in love” (emphasis in original). Inserra is a pastor, and he intends his book as an aid to pastors and other concerned Christians who long to “make disciples” of Jesus Christ” (Matthew 28:19). Distinguishing between authentic and nominal Christianity is never easy, especially in a supposedly Christian nation, but it’s an evangelistic necessity, lest we leave people thinking what we did, rather than what He did, saves us.

Book Reviewed
Dean Inserra, The Unsaved Christian: Reaching Cultural Christianity with the Gospel (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2019).

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

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

Pentecostals and Social Injustice | Influence Podcast


According to the International Labour Organization of the United Nations, approximately 40 million people around the world are victims of modern slavery. Nearly 5 million are victims of forced sexual exploitation. Women and girls are disproportionally affected by this exploitation, accounting for 99 percent of victims in the commercial sex industry.

How should Pentecostals respond to this particular evil? More broadly, how should they speak out prophetically against social injustice? That’s the question I’m exploring with Dr. Beth Grant in Episode 171 of the Influence Podcast.

Dr. Grant is coufounder, with her husband David, of Project Rescue, whose mission is “to rescue and restore victims of sexual slavery through the love and power of Jesus Christ.” It ministers to approximately 40,000 victims of sexual trafficking in India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Moldova, Tajikistan, Spain, and France. It operates aftercare homes, vocational training, afterschool programs, night care shelters, HIV/Aids and medical clinics, red light district churches and Sunday schools, and awareness and prevention programs for affected women and children.

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

P.P.S. I reviewed Dr. Grant’s excellent book, Courageous Compassion, here. Listen to the podcast, then buy the book!

A Serial Killer’s Daughter | Book Review


Dennis Rader is a serial murderer whose self-chosen moniker, BTK, was an acronym for “bind, torture, kill.” Between 1974 and 1991, he killed ten people in Wichita, Kansas, including two children. Throughout this period, he lived an outwardly normal life, working full time, raising a family, volunteering with Boy Scouts, and serving as president of his church council.

Kerri Rawson is BTK’s daughter. In A Serial Killer’s Daughter, she recounts her life with Rader until the moment that life fell apart on February 25, 2005, when her father was arrested. Over the next decade, she suffered anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder as she attempted to reconcile the man she knew as her father with the man whose crimes revealed a monster.

At first, she could not believe that her father was the killer. Over time, however, acknowledgement of her dad’s crimes shined a retrospective light on her father’s temper, secrecy, and controlling tendencies in her growing up years, as well as her lifelong night terrors and overdeveloped sense of stranger danger.

Looking at the past through the lens of her dad’s crimes, she was horrified when she realized that he had killed two victims while on a Boy Scouts outing with his son, that he had killed a neighbor several doors down, and that he had used the church basement to store equipment he used in murders as well as to stage a corpse for bondage photos.

True crime stories typically focus on the perpetrator or his victims. What makes A Serial Killer’s Daughter unique is its focus on the perpetrator’s family members, who also are victims of his crimes. Without in any way downplaying the suffering of Rader’s ten victims or their families, Rawson tells the story of her and her family’s victimization in unsparing terms. The book includes several examples of letters between her and father, as well as family pictures from before the arrest.

Rawson’s memoir is a memoir of faith. In addition to professional counseling, meditation on Scripture and participation in church helped her put her life back together in the decade following her father’s arrest. They eventually led her to forgive her father for what he did to his family, a forgiveness she experienced as a healing of her emotional wounds. Even so, she states outright that Dennis Rader deserves the life imprisonment he was sentenced to because of the enormity of his crimes.

A Serial Killer’s Daughter makes for engrossing reading, not because it reports on Rader’s crimes in salacious detail, but because it chronicles the way one man’s evil rebounded on his own beloved daughter.

Book Reviewed
Kerri Rawson, A Serial Killer’s Daughter: My Story of Faith, Love, and Overcoming (Nashville, TN: Nelson Books, 2019).

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

The Fire That Consumes | Book Review


Edward William Fudge’s The Fire That Consumes (3rded.) makes an exhaustive—and occasionally exhausting—biblical and historical case for a conditionalist understanding of hell. Traditionalism teaches that “God will make the wicked immortal, to suffer unending conscious torment in hell.” By contrast, conditionalism teaches that “the wicked will finally and truly die, perish, and become extinct forever, through a destructive process that encompasses whatever degree and duration of conscious torment God might sovereign and just impose in each case.” According to Fudge, the duration of hell’s torments is the only issue that divides the two camps.

The biblical component of Fudge’s case occupies the first 23 chapters of the book, in which Fudge surveys passages from the Old Testament, intertestamental literature, and New Testament that bear on his argument. The historical component occupies the next 11 chapters, starting with the Apostolic Fathers and ending with late-twentieth century conditionalists. Chapter 35 summarizes the argument of the entire book, and chapter 36 offers several brief thoughts about how the debate should be conducted going forward.

Though summarizing a nearly 400-page book is a hazardous endeavor, it seems to me that Fudge’s cumulative case makes the following basic points:

    1. The Bible is the final authority to settle theological debates about hell.
    1. The Bible promises “eternal life” and “immortality” to those who put their faith in Jesus Christ for salvation.
    1. By contrast, the Bible portrays the fate of the wicked as “destruction” and “death.” Since the Bible does not teach that the wicked have “eternal life,” the images of destruction and death are best understood as “extinction forever.” This coheres with the image of “fire” often used to describe hell, for fire consumes what it burns.
    1. Applied to the fate of the wicked, the adjective “eternal” points not to an everlasting process of being punished, as traditionalists argue, but to the everlasting result of a terminal process of punishment.
    1. Though church history is not the final authority in the debate over hell, it does indicate that conditionalism was a widespread view among church fathers prior to Augustine. Since Augustine, traditionalism has been the majority position.
    1. At the present time, conditionalism is gaining adherents among evangelical theologians. Even traditionalists argue that many of the conditionalists—Fudge himself, John Stott, John Wenham, Philip Edgcumbe Hughes, and the like—are otherwise evangelicals in good standing. In other words, the issue at stake in the debate is not biblical inerrancy, the Trinity, Incarnation, Atonement, or other first-level Christian doctrine, but rather a second-level doctrine, namely, how long hell endures.

The bulk of Fudge’s book centers on points 2 and 3 above, which can be summarized quickly but takes a long time to document.

Whether or not one agrees with Fudge, The Fire That Consumes is essential reading for anyone interested in a biblical doctrine of hell. This is admitted by traditionalists themselves, who often take Fudge’s writings as the point of departure in their critiques of conditionalism. For the traditionalist view, I would recommend the multi-author Hell Under Fire, edited by Christopher W. Morgan and Robert A. Peterson. It interacts with an earlier edition of Fudge’s book, and Fudge’s third edition replies in turn to its critiques.

Book Reviewed
Edward William Fudge, The Fire That Consumes: A Biblical and Historical Study of the Doctrine of Final Punishment, 3rded. (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2011).

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

Growing With | Book Review


Kara Powell and Steven Argue begin Growing With by pinpointing the dilemma our kids face in the crucial season between 13 and 29 years of age: “On the one hand, our kids’ sophistication has accelerated and it seems like they are getting older earlier; but on the other hand, they feel less mature as the typical markers of adulthood are now delayed.” In other words, the transition to adulthood begins earlier and lasts longer in this generation than in previous generations.

How we parent our children changes as they age. Powell and Argue define “Growing With parenting” as “a mutual journey of intentional growth for both ourselves and our children that trusts God to transform us all.” Growing With helps Christian parents navigate those changes by describing three stages of development our kids go through.

In the “learner” stage (ages 13–18), our kids enter “a season of rapid physical, emotional, relational, intellectual, and spiritual growth and change.” As parents, our primary role in this stage is as “teachers,” not in the sense of telling them what to do, but in the sense of “learner-centered teaching.”

In the “explorer” stage (ages 18–23), our kids “often venture for the first time away from home or home-oriented routines to pursue their goals, relationships, and beliefs.” During this stage, parents’ primary role is as “guides,” shifting “our parenting focus away from setting goals for our kids and toward guiding them on the journey of setting their own goals.”

Finally, in the “focusers” stage (ages 23–29), our kids “begin to gain a clearer sense of who they are and have likely made educational, vocational, and relational choices that set them on particular trajectories.” Our primary role is as “resourcers.” Our kids come to us for advice because “we have lived through the life events they now anticipate, including career advancement, marriage, parenthood, renting or buying a home, and financial investments.”

As these changes occur, Powell and Argue urge parents to pay “special attention to three keys areas of our child’s exploration: family, faith, and freedom” [emphasis in original]. Parents who do so engage in what the authors call the three “dynamic verbs” of “withing,” “faithing,” and “adulting.”

      • Withing: “a family’s growth in supporting each other as children grow more independent”
      • Faithing: “a child’s growth in owning and embodying their own journey with God as they encounter new experiences and information”
      • Adulting: “a child’s growth in agency as they embrace opportunities to shape the world around them”

The unique contribution Growing With  makes to the literature of Christian parenting is its detailed advice about what shapes withing, faithing, and adulting take in the learner, explorer, and focuser stages of our kids’ lives, and how we should parent as a result. This advice takes up the bulk of the book (chapters 3–8). In this review, I’m only focusing on the organizing framework. You’ll have to read the book to get Powell and Argue’s detailed advice.

Growing With is a valuable read for parents of adolescents and young adults. It describes the changes our kids are going through, and what kinds of major life choices they are beginning to make using a memorable vocabulary to describe both the changes and the choices. Throughout, the authors urge parents to keep the lines of relationship with our kids open, even when — perhaps especially when — they begin to make choices we disagree with. In that vein, I wish the authors had provided clearer direction to Christian parents about kids and LGBT issues, which are a much bigger deal today than when most of us were growing up.

I close by quoting three mantras the authors encourage parents to tell themselves:

      1. “Today I will attempt to be in the right place at the right time.” This means knowing what stage your kids are in and what role your parenting should take as a result.
      2. “Today I will allow grace to give me courage to take a next faithful step.”
      3. “Today I have what it takes to be the best parent for my kid.”

It’s never too late to be a better parent, and Growing With offers valuable advice for better parenting our kids as they emerge into young adulthood.

Book Reviewed
Kara Powell and Steven Argue, Growing With: Every Parent’s Guide to Helping Teenagers and Young Adults Thrive in Their Faith, Family, and Future (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2019).

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

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

Two Views on Hell | Book Review


Two Views of Hell is a debate between Edward W. Fudge and Robert A. Peterson about how long hell lasts. Fudge is a leading evangelical advocate for conditionalism, which teaches that the wicked will be destroyed body and soul in hell. He is the author of The Fire That Consumes, now in its third edition, the best single-volume treatment of conditonalism. Peterson is a leading evangelical advocate of traditionalism, which teaches the eternal conscious torment of the wicked in hell. He is the author of Hell on Trial, probably the best single-author treatment of traditionalism from a Reformed or Calvinist perspective currently available.

The debate follows a point-counterpoint format. Fudge opens Part One of Two Views on Hell with “The Case for Conditionalism.” Peterson then offers “A Traditionalist Response to Conditionalism.” Part Two reverses the order. Peterson makes “The Case for Traditionalism,” then Fudge offers “A Conditionalist Response to Traditionalism.” Each author makes his case on the basis of exegesis of relevant biblical texts combined with systematic theological considerations. Peterson also makes an argument from the testimony of leading theologians, but with Fudge, I don’t think such an argument is persuasive as to the truth of Peterson’s case, though it certainly explains why traditionalism is traditional.

To oversimplify the debate, the crucial issue is the meaning of the words deathand destruction on the one hand, and eternal on the other. (I’m sure Fudge and Peterson would blanch at my simplification, for they bring many more arguments to bear than just disputes over these words. But, I think my admitted oversimplification helps illuminate the essence of the debate.) For Fudge, the words death  and destruction, which constitute the bulk of the Bible’s descriptions of the fate of the wicked, mean the literal cessation of bodily and spiritual existence. At the Final Judgment, God will pronounce sentence on the wicked and they will be annihilated, for lack of a better term. By contrast, Peterson understands the same words in terms of separation, loss, and ruin, not annihilation. Fudge argues that traditionalism assumes an unbiblical doctrine of the immortality of the soul. Because the soul exists immortally, whether it is saved or damned, hell must last eternally.

Peterson, on the other hand, believes that hell is eternal because the Bible speaks of “eternal punishment.” He cites ten biblical texts—two from the Old Testament, eight from the New—that lay the biblical foundation of the case for traditionalism: Isaiah 66:2–4; Daniel 12:1–2; Matthew 18:6–9; 25:31–46; Mark 9:42–48; 2 Thessalonians 5:1–10; Jude 7, 13; Revelation 14:9–11; and 20:10, 14–15. Although these are not Peterson’s or Fudge’s analogies, the tradtionalist hell is like life imprisonment without possibility of parole, while the conditionalist hell is like capital punishment. Both are final and irreversible, but whereas one is an eternal process of punishment, the other is a temporal sentence with eternal consequences.

If you’ve read any contemporary books on hell by evangelical authors, this book contains no surprises. Each author treads a well-worn path of argumentation. Each author makes the standard arguments for his position and the standard relies to his opponent’s. To me, despite the rigor of his arguments, Peterson came off a bit tetchy in his reply to Fudge and a bit dismissive of Fudge’s previous writings when he made his own case. By the end of the debate—that is, in his reply to Peterson—even Fudge seemed a bit peeved. One of the frustrating things about debates such as this is the mutual stupefaction each expresses at how the other could possibly believe what he does.

While I appreciate the scholarship Fudge and Peterson bring to their respective cases, this is not the book I would recommend if you’re looking for only one book about the evangelical debate on hell. I would start with Four Views on Hell, 2nd ed., edited by Preston Sprinkle (2016). It’s more recent, contains an argument for universalism and hints at a case for something like a traditional view that is more amenable to Arminians. If you’re collecting a library on the debate, however—as I seem to be doing—include this one.

Book Reviewed
Edward William Fudge and Robert A. Peterson, Two Views of Hell: A Biblical and Theological Debate (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000).

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