Apostles of Disunion | Book Review

“The Civil War was fought over what important issue?”

That question begins and ends the 2001 edition of Charles B. Dew’s Apostles of Disunion. It appeared on a test administered to prospective citizens by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Services. According to the INS, either “slavery” or “states [sic] rights” was an acceptable answer. This binary option, in Dew’s words, “reflects the deep division and profound ambivalence in contemporary American culture over the origins of the Civil War.”

Today, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services administers the test. The current version of that test, updated in January 2017, includes this question: “Name one problem that led to the Civil War” (emphasis in original). Acceptable answers include “slavery,” “economic reasons,” and “states’ rights.” After 152 years, Americans still don’t agree on the cause of the Civil War.

There is a sense in which the second and third answers are correct. The election of Abraham Lincoln in November 1860 alarmed the South. Southerners feared that a Republican administration would violate their states’ rights and harm their economies in the process. Because they couldn’t see a way of keeping their states’ rights inviolate and their economies flourishing with Lincoln in the White House, they seceded.

And yet, citing “states’ rights” and “economic reasons” as causes of the Civil War is also profoundly misleading. Think of it this way: Why did Southerners think a Republican administration threatened their states’ rights and economies? Because they felt that Lincoln and the Republicans would interfere with their “peculiar institution,” slavery—the source of their region’s economic wealth and the reason for the constant invocation of states’ rights against federal power. Economic reasons and states’ right might have been proximate causes, but slavery was the ultimate cause.

The South seceded from the Union in order to defend the ideology of white supremacy and the practice of slavery. Next time you read about a conflict regarding a Confederate monument or the Confederate battle flag, keep that fact in mind.

But don’t take either my word or Charles B. Dew’s word for this conclusion. Take the word of the various men profiled in his book, men specifically commissioned by Southern states (e.g., South Carolina) to advocate the need for other Southern states (e.g., Virginia) to secede from the Union and form a new Confederacy, an advocacy that occurred in late 1860 and early 1861, prior to the attach on Fort Sumter. “Over and over again,” Dew writes, “they called up three stark images that, taken together, constituted the white South’s worst nightmare.”

Below are the “three stark images” together with representative quotes from secessionist commissioners:

  1. Racial equality

“Our fathers made this a government for the white man, rejecting the negro, as an ignorant, inferior, barbarian race, incapable of self-government, and not, therefore, entitled to be associated with the white man upon terms of civil, political, or social equality” (William L. Harris, Mississippi commissioner, in a December 1860 speech to the Georgia legislature).

  1. Race war

“Under the policy of the Republican party, the time would arrive when the scenes of San Domingo and Hayti, with all their attendant horrors, would be enacted in the slaveholding States” (William Cooper, Alabama commissioner, in a December 1860 speech to the Missouri legislature. He was referring to the Haitian Revolution (1791–1804), in which Haitian slaves overthrew their French masters.)

  1. Racial amalgamation

“Therefore it is that the election of Mr. Lincoln cannot be regarded otherwise than a solemn declaration, on the part of a great majority of the Northern people, of hostility to the South, her property, and her institutions [i.e., slavery]; nothing less than an open declaration of war, for the triumph of this new theory of government [i.e., “the equality of the races, white and black”] destroys the property of the South, lays waste her fields, and inaugurates all the horrors of a San Domingo servile insurrection [i.e., the Haitian Revolution], consigning her citizens to assassinations and her wives and daughters to pollution and violation to gratify the lust of half-civilized Africans” (Stephen F. Hale, Alabama commissioner, in a December 27, 1860, in a formal letter to Gov. Beriah Magoffin of Kentucky).

In his 2016 Afterword, Dew notes that he reviewed the commissioners’ speeches and formal letters afresh and saw with greater clarity how “economic themes formed a significant undercurrent in their case for secession.” But once again, those economic reasons focused on slavery. After quoting various commissioners, Dew notes: “The two largest industries in the Old South were staple crop agriculture and the [internal] slave trade. No other economic activity came even close to these two enterprises. So they had to figure in the secession commissioners’ argument, and they did.”

With the defeat of the South and the abolition of slavery, Southern partisans recast the ultimate cause of their struggle. The result was the so-called “Lost Cause,” the defense of Southern culture in which the centrality of slavery was downplayed. In light of what secession commissioners said about the cause of their struggle before the Civil War, however, the Lost Cause can only be seen as egregious historical revisionism. The South seceded from the Union in order to defend the ideology of white supremacy and the practice of slavery. That was its ultimate aim and the reason for its invocation of “states’ rights” and “economic reasons.”

Next time you read about a conflict regarding a Confederate monument or the Confederate battle flag, keep that fact in mind.


Book Reviewed:
Charles B. Dew, Apostles of Disunion: Southern Secession Commissioners and the Causes of the Civil War, 15th anniv. ed. (Charlottesville: University of Virginia, 2016).

P.S. If you found my review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review page.


The Honourable Schoolboy | Book Review

The Honourable Schoolboy is the second book in John Le Carré’s “Karla Trilogy,” in which George Smiley of Britain’s MI6 engages Russia’s KGB in clandestine warfare. In the first book—Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy—Smiley exposed a long-time mole in the “Circus,” the nickname for Britain’s Now, Smiley reorganizes the “Circus” and chases down a “gold seam” of Russian money in a Hong Kong bank.

Set in the Far East, The Honourable Schoolboy introduces readers to sometime British spy, full-time journalist, and impoverished noble Jerry Westerby, whom Smiley taps to follow the money trail. Westerby follows the money, gets frustrated in the long days when Smiley isn’t sure what his next move should be, and falls hard for a woman who through some combination of bad choices and bad luck has fallen in with the wrong crowd.

The Honourable Schoolboy contains more action than Tinker, Tailor, and Westerby is a character more easily loved than Smiley. And yet, somehow, this novel still felt slower than its predecessor—hence the four-star review. Still, this is a page-turning novel set in the hottest part of the West’s long cold war with the East, and it is well worth reading.


Book Reviewed:
John Le Carré, The Honourable Schoolboy: A George Smiley Novel (New York: Penguin, 2011; orig. 1977).

P.S. If you found my review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review page.

Review of ‘Winsome Persuasion’ by Tim Muehlhoff and Richard Langer

The American public square no longer seems to be a safe space. Instead, it is the scene of a riot in the making, where yelling threatens to give way to hitting. And social media stands ever ready to cheer on those throwing the punches.

This incivility stems from what Deborah Tannen calls the “adversary culture,” which “urges us to approach the world — and the people in it — in an adversarial frame of mind.” According to Tim Muehlhoff and Richard Langer, the adversary culture writes a script for our interactions with people we disagree with that has four elements:

  1. Thoughtful consideration of the other’s point of view is denounced as “compromise.”
  2. Monologue is preferred to dialogue, since the latter might result in “questioning of long-held values and ideological commitments.”
  3. People on the other side of a dispute must be demonized, not merely disagreed with.

The widespread use of the Internet enables the fourth element:

  1. “Online disinhibition” means that “individuals feel unrestrained by normal social conventions, resulting in unfiltered communication.”

Unfortunately, in my opinion, American Christians seem as likely to read off the adversary-culture script as any other American. Doing so means we help make the public square more dangerous. It also means that our witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ becomes less effective. No one listens to bullies with bullhorns, after all.

In their new book, Winsome Persuasion, Muehlhoff and Langer make the case for Christians adopting a persuasive voice in the public square, as opposed to a prophetic or pastoral one. The persuasive voice “appeals to the common good and general revelation” and “seeks to change viewpoints or practices within the culture.” It acknowledges the fact of deep ideological disagreement, in other words, even as it seeks to change others’ ideas.

No one listens to bullies with bullhorns, after all.

The prophetic voice, by contrast, “appeals to the revealed Word of God as final authority” and “calls for acknowledgment of sin and repentance.” It is useful when dealing with other believers who confess the Bible’s authority in their lives. However, it is ineffective when used with unbelievers who don’t have the same starting point.

The pastoral voice “appeals to shared needs and suffering” and “offers healing, nurture, and aid to those in need.” It is effective at comforting those in dire circumstances, but it does not have the power to change people’s minds. It can build bridges of compassion, of course, but it does not give opponents a reason to cross them.

The persuasive voice is especially necessary given the emerging shape of contemporary American culture. For one thing, many Christian ideas and practices are out of step with the spirit of the age. A recent Gallup poll, for example, indicates that a record number of Americans — 64 percent — support same-sex marriage. In 1997, that number was 27 percent. This sea change of opinion is arguably the greatest on a controversial social issue in our lifetime.

For another thing, an increasing number of Americans are disavowing religion entirely. According to Pew data, the percentage of Americans with no religious affiliation — the so-called “Nones” — grew from 16.1 percent in 2007 to 22.8 percent in 2014. The trend is especially pronounced among younger Americans. A recent analysis of the CIRP Freshmen Survey found that 31 percent of college freshmen claim no religious affiliation, a number that has tripled since 1986.

Taken together, these two trend lines should be worrisome to Christians in America. The Christian view of marriage is now a minority opinion, and increasing numbers of people no longer view a Christian affiliation as desirable in the first place. Indeed, a Gallup poll indicates that a third of Americans view religion as “largely old fashioned and out of date.”

This is the cultural context in which American Christians are called to exercise gospel influence. If once upon a time Christians could assume that the public was with us on controversial issues, we can no longer do so. Our opinions on sexual morality and marriage, most obviously, are a minority report. We are what Muehlhoff and Langer call a “counterpublic.”

Counterpublics are characterized by “opposition, withdrawal, and engagement.” Opposition and engagement are easy to understand. The public dislikes our opinions (opposition), and we aim to change its mind (engagement). Withdrawal requires explanation. It is not quietism, the opposition of engagement. Rather, it can be likened to strategic retreat, an opportunity to rest, regroup and rethink before sallying forth again.

Muehlhoff and Langer use Aristotle’s three categories of rhetoric to help Christian counterpublics understand how to persuade the American public on the issues where they disagree. According to them, a persuasive message “is rooted in three factors: the logic of the argument (logos), the speaker’s ability to project a trustworthy persona (ethos), and the speaker’s ability to awaken the emotions of the audience (pathos).” Christian credibility in the public square depends on whether the public views us as credible messengers of a credible message couched in terms they understand and can be persuaded by.

The authors conclude their book with recommendations on how Christian counterpublics can respond to LGBT issues. Christianity’s stance on sexual morality and marriage is arguably the thing that most makes American Christians a counterpublic today. If we’re going to engage the public effectively on LGBT issues — or other hotly contested social issues — we need to think through the kinds of issues Winsome Persuasion so deftly examines.


Book Reviewed:
Tim Muehlhoff and Richard Langer, Winsome Persuasion: Christian Influence in a Post-Christian World (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2017).

Further Resources:

P.S. If you found my review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review page.

P.P.S. P.S.S. This review was written for InfluenceMagazine.com and appears here by permission.

Review of ‘Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy’ by John Le Carré

James Jesus Angleton, the legendary (and controversial) chief of CIA counterintelligence, described his work, borrowing a phrase from T. S. Eliot, as a “wilderness of mirrors.” In such a wilderness, it is difficult to discern between reality and reflection. Add the element of danger, and the wilderness induces paranoia in the viewer. The setting of John Le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is this wilderness of mirrors.

The story takes place in 1973. It opens with Jim Prideaux, former British agent, being hired as a substitute teacher at a boys’ prep school. “Control” (head of Britain’s intelligence service, MI6) has died, George Smiley (Control’s chief lieutenant) has been sacked, Operation Testify (Prideaux’s last op in Czechoslovakia) ended in abject failure, and “Circus” (MI6), has been reorganized under a new chief.

Then, a British agent named Ricki Tarr comes across information that the Soviets are running a mole in the Circus, who is code-named “Gerald.” Oliver Lacon, the Civil Service officer responsible for MI6 oversight, approaches Smiley and asks him to investigate. As the novel unfolds, Smiley discovers that there is a mole, he is a double agent feeding the Circus bad Soviet intel, and he is responsible for blowing Prideaux’s op.

It is a testament to John Le Carré’s skill as a writer that Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is a page-turner despite the fact that it contains so little action. Instead, the plot moves forward and the truth is revealed by means of conversations, flashbacks, and Smiley’s seemingly inexhaustible memory. Smiley walks us through the wilderness one mirror at a time until we see reality.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is the fifth of seven novels in which George Smiley plays a part and the first of Le Carré’s famed “Karla Trilogy,” in which Smiley matches wits with “Karla,” head of “Moscow Center” (the KGB). It is followed by The Honourable Schoolboy and Smiley’s People. Of the five novels I have read so far, this and The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (in which Smiley plays a small role) are the best.

Interestingly, Le Carré is releasing what is billed as a new George Smiley novel in September. It’s called A Legacy of Spies, and I look forward to reading it after I finish this series.

Book Reviewed:
John Le Carré, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy: A George Smiley Novel (New York: Penguin, 2011; orig. 1974).

P.S. If you found my review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review page.

Review of ‘The Looking Glass War by John Le Carré

The Looking Glass War is billed as “A George Smiley Novel.” It is the fourth installment in the series of John Le Carré books where Smiley plays a part, but his role here is very small.

The main story concerns the U.K.’s “Department” (military intelligence) competing with its “Circus” (political intelligence) for glory. The Department ran agents against the Nazis during World War II but has since fallen in missions, personnel, and funding. The Circus, on the other hand, seems to be gobbling up all those things. So, when the Department receives intelligence of a possible missile program in East German, it reactivates an old agent to confirm that program’s existence. The program doesn’t exist, the agent is captured but his fate left unknown, and Smiley is sent by Circus’ “Control” to communicate the reorganization of the Department.

While The Looking Glass War has some interesting bits about interdepartmental rivalry, the training of spies, and the perils of espionage to those who are carrying it out, on the whole, the novel failed to capture my imagination. I read it more out of duty than delight. Even Le Carré admits in his Introduction that it was received poorly by critics. After reading The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, this novel was a disappointment. Thankfully, Le Carré followed The Looking Glass War with Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, which I am currently reading, and that is a real page-turner.

If you, like me, prefer to read series’ novels in order, I can honestly recommend that you skip this one and go directly from The Spy Who Came in from the Cold to Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. You won’t be missing much.


Book Reviewed:
John Le Carré, The Looking Glass War: A George Smiley Novel (New York: Penguin, 2013; orig. 1965).

P.S. If you found my review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review page.

Review of ‘Multipliers’ by Liz Wiseman

One of the reasons why leading a church is hard work is the problem of what David Allen calls “new demands, insufficient resources.” For example, youth ministry is vital to the health and future of the church, but we all know how hard it is to get volunteers to work with junior high students. Even Jesus faced this problem: “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few” (Matthew 9:37).

The first solution to the problem of new demands and insufficient resources is specific prayer. “Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field” (Matthew 9:38). God sees the new demands, but unlike us, He doesn’t lack sufficient resources: “my God will meet all your needs according to the riches of his glory in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:19).

Complementing prayer is a second solution: the right people. Jesus taught us to pray for more “workers.” Paul described the Church as a “body” with variously gifted “parts” (1 Corinthians 12:12–31). The unfortunate fact is that too many pastors and other ministry leaders try to respond to new demands on their own — with only the gifts, talents and resources God has given them personally.  They fail to see the gifts, talents and resources God has given them corporately, in their congregations. The consequence of this failure is burned-out pastors and leaders on the one hand and bored, frustrated and underutilized followers on the other.

Liz Wiseman wrote Multipliers, now out in a revised and updated edition, to figure out how leaders can grow both the intelligence and capability of their organizations. Although she wrote it for a business audience, I couldn’t help but see its relevance to the problem of new demands and insufficient resources in churches too.

Let me try to explain:

Multipliers vs. Diminishers
Wiseman begins the book with this observation: “There is more intelligence inside our organizations than we are using” (emphasis in original). Multiplication taps into this intelligence. Its logic can be understood through three statements:

  1. Most people in organizations are underutilized.
  2. All capability can be leveraged with the right kind of leadership.
  3. Therefore, intelligence and capability can be multiplied without requiring a bigger investment.

As a former staff and senior pastor and a current church member, I agree with the first statement wholeheartedly. Too many people in any given congregation sit in the pew on Sunday morning … but nothing else. They are spiritual consumers, not spiritual producers.

Regarding the third statement, I certainly hope my church can do more without investing in additional staff and buildings. I’d like to see a more productive and efficient use of what we already have before we lay out more money for sparkly new stuff.

The second statement, then, is key: We need “the right kind of leadership.” Wiseman calls these leaders Multipliers and contrasts them with Diminishers. Multipliers tap into the intelligence of their organizations, grow it and increase the capability of their team members and of their organization. Diminishers “shut down the smarts of those around them.” Multipliers begin with the assumption, “People are smart and will figure this out.” Diminishers begin with the assumption, “They will never figure this out without me.”

According to Wiseman, no leader is entirely a Multiplier or entirely a Diminisher. Instead, all leaders perform on a spectrum, with both Multiplier and Diminisher tendencies. This means leaders can move either way on the spectrum.

Two important questions now arise: How do Multipliers lead? And how do I become a Multiplier?

Multiplier Practices

Wiseman’s research indicates that Multipliers lead by engaging in five specific roles:

  1. The Talent Magnet: “[T]hey attract and deploy talent to its fullest, regardless of who owns the resource, and people flock to work with them because they know they will grow and be successful.”
  2. The Liberator: “Multipliers establish a unique and highly motivating work environment where everyone has permission to think and the space to do their best work.”
  3. The Challenger: “They seed opportunities, lay down challenges that stretch the organization, and in doing so, generate belief that it can be done and enthusiasm about the process.”
  4. The Debate Maker: “Multipliers engage people in debating the issues up front, which leads to decisions that people understand and can execute efficiently.”
  5. The Investor: “Multipliers deliver and sustain superior results by inculcating high expectations across the organization.”

Now, before you dismiss this as so much business-book gobbledygook, try thinking of Jesus’ leadership in terms of Wiseman’s five roles:

The Talent Magnet: Jesus’s disciples, despite not being religious, political, economic or academic elites, established a religion that is still thriving 2,000 years later.

The Liberator: Jesus empowered His followers to preach the same message as He did, with signs and wonders following (Matthew 10:1–42; Mark 6:6–13; Luke 10:1–24).

The Challenger: Read those three Synoptic Gospel passages cited above, then reminder that Jesus commissioned His followers to do these things in His absence. Not only that, He left the task to “make disciples of all nations” both to His first-century followers and to us (Matthew 18:18). The Great Commission is a perpetual challenge that Christ has called and empowered us to fulfill.

The Debate Maker: We rightly think of Jesus as a master teacher, but we fail to appreciate how often He taught by means of debate. In his book, All the Questions Jesus Asks, Stan Guthrie notes that Jesus asked 295 questions. That number doesn’t even include all the questions Jesus was asked by others.

The Investor: Could any expectation be higher than what Jesus told His disciples in John 20:21: “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you”?

Please don’t misunderstand me. Multipliers is a business book, not a ministry book. It’s written from a secular perspective, not a biblical one. It addresses a specific question in leadership — how to leverage capability through leadership. It is neither the first nor last word on leadership, let alone the first or last word on the pastoral leadership of Christian congregations.

Still, it has incredible diagnostic value because it helps identify the kinds of practices that do (and don’t) make the best use of resources in an organization, including, in my opinion, the local church.

Becoming Multipliers
So, how can pastors and other ministry leaders become Multipliers?

To answer that, we need to depart from Wiseman for a moment and remember the words of Jesus himself, “Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field” (Matthew 9:38). Ministry is not about making widgets but about making disciples, and the only person who can make a disciple is one who is himself being discipled. Ministry is spiritual work and requires spiritual growth, which comes first and foremost through a prayerful relationship with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Ministry is also relational, however. And the ministry of leadership requires that we work in relationship with the spiritually gifted people God has placed in our pews. Wiseman offers five pieces of advice to business leaders as they resolve to move from the Diminisher to the Multiplier side of the leadership spectrum, and I’d like to tweak these for ministry settings:

First, start with the assumptions: Do I assume that my congregation is spiritually gifted to do the ministry (Multiplier) or do I assume that I must do it myself or micromanage them in the process (Diminisher)?

Second, work the extremes (neutralize a weakness; top off a strength): Am I surrounding myself with others whose ministry strengths complement my ministry weaknesses? Am I working hard to develop the ministry gifts that I am best at personally?

Third, run an experiment: Am I actively trying to develop new Multiplier habits by identifying my Diminisher tendencies and replacing them with Multiplier assumptions and practices?

Fourth, brace yourself for setbacks: Change always involves a measure of failure. The apostle Peter, for example, was the first (and only) apostle to walk on water, but also the first (and only) apostle to sink after walking on water. If Jesus picked Peter up and got him back on the boat, He can do the same for you.

Fifth, ask a colleague: If “the eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I don’t need you!’ And the head cannot say to the feet, ‘I don’t need you!’” (1 Corinthians 12:21), then Christian leaders cannot isolate themselves from either their ministry peers or the people they lead. The title of Reuben Welch’s classic book on Christian community gets it exactly right: We Really Do Need Each Other.

So, back to the problem of “new demands, insufficient resources” that I mentioned at the outset of this review. Yes, it is a real problem that pastors and other ministry leaders feel deeply. But prayer to our infinitely resourceful God and wise leadership practices can help us more fully utilize the capabilities of our spiritually gifted congregations. There are, after all, more spiritual gifts in our congregations than we are currently using.

Are you the kind of leader who can multiply them?

Book Reviewed:
Liz Wiseman, Multipliers: How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter, rev. ed. (New York: Harper Business, 2017).

P.S. If you found my review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review page.

P.S.S. This review was written for InfluenceMagazine.com and appears here by permission.

Review of ‘No Middle Name’ by Lee Childs

When I’m not reading books germane to my profession as a minister and religion journalist, I like to read mysteries and thrillers. At the top of my list of must-read authors is Lee Child, who has written twenty-one novels featuring Jack Reacher, as well as the twelve short stories contained in No Middle Name: The Complete Collected Jack Reacher Short Stories, just released by Delacorte Press on May 16.

The book contains one new story, “Too Much Time,” and eleven previously published stories, the oldest, “James Penney’s New Identity,” having been written in 1999. With the exception of “Too Much Time,” the stories start with Reacher as a youth and end in the present day. They are of uneven quality, in my opinion. “Too Much Time” is Lee Child at his best, as Reacher is arrested for a crime we all know he didn’t commit. “Maybe They Have a Tradition” and “No Room at the Motel,” both Christmas-time stories involving pregnancies, are, well, just okay.

The number one rule of fiction is the willing suspension of disbelief, which is especially important when reading Reacher stories of any kind. Reacher is a decorated, West Point educated, ex-military police officer who now travels the United States (and world) with little more than some cash, his passport, and a foldable toothbrush in his pocket. Along the way, he gets himself into scrapes with miscreants, whose crimes he detects and whose just sentence he metes out, often violently, even lethally. In other words, he’s a homeless sociopath whose rough justice happens to be directed at targets who had it coming.

What keeps you from thinking about Reacher’s shortcomings too long, in addition to the fact that the targets of his beatdowns are deplorable, is Lee Child’s prose, which I can only describe as kinetic. Child has a way of pulling you along word after word, sentence after sentence, page after page. He makes you want to know what will happen next because you’re right there with Reacher, who’s wondering that too.

If you haven’t read any Jack Reacher stories, I wouldn’t start with No Middle Name, which I generally liked. Start at the beginning with The Killing Floor. The novels will make you a fan. No Middle Name is for the already convinced.

P.S. If you found my review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review page.

Review of ‘As Kingfishers Catch Fire’ by Eugene H. Peterson

Near the beginning of his pastorate, Eugene H. Peterson found himself tossed about by “the winds of the times.” The 1960s were a tumultuous decade, and many voices — Civil Rights! Vietnam! Flower Power! — clamored for his attention. On top of that, he felt “increasingly at odds” with his denominational advisors, whose ideas of leadership came “almost entirely from business and consumer models.”

Then three things happened. First, he realized he didn’t know how to preach. What he was doing on Sunday morning was “whipping up enthusiasm” for the church’s programs, not preaching for the “nurturing of souls.”

Second, he heard a lecture by Paul Tournier, a Swiss physician, who treated patients not from a “consulting room” but from his “living room,” using “words…in a setting of personal relationship.” In his lecture, Tournier exhibited what Peterson calls a “life of congruence, with no slippage between what he was saying and the way he was living.”

Third, he came across a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem, “As Kingfishers Catch Fire,” whose last stanza reads:

I say more: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: that keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is —
Christ. For Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.

In Hopkins’ poetic vision, it is Jesus Christ who “lives and acts in us in such ways that our lives express the congruence of inside and outside, this congruence of ends and means.” These three things — pulpit, lecture, poem — came together and shaped Peterson’s understanding and practice of ministry, first as a pastor, then as a writer and professor.

As Kingfishers Catch Fire is a collection of 49 sermons Peterson first preached at Christ Our King Presbyterian Church during nearly thirty years of ministry there (1962–1991). The sermons are divided into seven groups, each grouped together with the formula, “Preaching in the Company of _____,” where the fill-in-the-blank is Moses (the Law), David (Psalms), Isaiah (the Prophets), Solomon (Wisdom literature), Peter (the Gospels), Paul (the Epistles), and John (the Johannine literature). Throughout, Peterson strives to “enter into the biblical company of prototypical preachers and work out of the traditions they had developed under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.”

The result is a master class in what Scripture says about the pastoral care of souls. Peterson eschews the notions that spirituality can be pursued apart from everyday life or that it can be sought without the company of others. Instead, as he writes in a characteristic passage:

It is somewhat common among people who get interested in religion or God to get proportionately disinterested in their jobs and families, their communities and their colleagues. The more of God, the less of the human. But that is not the way God intends it. Wisdom [literature] counters this tendency by giving witness to the precious nature of human experience in all its forms, whether or not it feels or appears “spiritual” (emphasis in original).

This isn’t to deny that spiritual disciplines such as prayer, Scripture reading, and corporate worship are vital. But, Peterson is saying, unless those disciplines make us better workers, family members, neighbors and friends, we haven’t yet achieved the congruence of life to which Scripture bears witness: persons who act in God’s eye what in God’s eye we are, that is, “Christ who lives in [us]” (Galatians 2:20).

This is not a book I would recommend to some pastors. For example, if you’re looking for a book that gives you a fool-proof three-step process to ______ (whatever it is that you’re trying to do), skip this one. Or if you’re looking on Saturday night for a three-point sermon you can preach the next morning, don’t read this. Peterson’s sermons are ongoing conversations, not plug-and-play outlines.

However, if you’re tossed about by the winds of the times or you’re tired of slapping Bible verses on business principles or if your ministry lacks congruence between the means of discipleship and the ends of Christlikeness, please read this book. It will feed your soul, and through you, the souls of your congregation.

Then read it again.


Book Reviewed:

Eugene H. Peterson, As Kingfishers Catch Fire: A Conversation on the Way of God Formed by the Word of God (Colorado Springs, CO: WaterBrook, 2017).

P.S. If you found my review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review page.

P.S.S. This review was written for InfluenceMagazine.com and appears here by permission.

Review of ‘The Tech-Wise Family’ by Andy Crouch

The first computer I ever owned was an Apple Macintosh Classic II. Released in October 1991, my Mac Classic boasted a 16 megahertz CPU, 2 megabytes of RAM and 40 megabytes of memory — 80 if you splurged. It weighed 16 pounds. I felt privileged as a graduate student to have such computing power on my desk. Some of my peers had to make do with word processors or, even worse, typewriters.

Today, my iPhone 6SE weighs 4 ounces, has a 1.85 gigahertz CPU, 2 gigabytes of RAM and 128 gigabytes of memory. It wakes me up in the morning, tracks my diet and exercise progress, and handles all my emails, texts and social media. It takes pictures, shoots video and streams movies, TV shows and music on demand. It stores books and magazines that I read, including the Bible. When my kids get bored — or, to be honest, when I get tired of paying attention to them — it entertains them.

My Mac Classic was a tool. My iPhone is (almost) my life. And that’s a problem.

All of us know how useful technology is. We can do things with it that we cannot do without it. In The Tech-Wise Family, Andy Crouch points out what many of us fail to see as we use technology, namely, that it is changing us and our families, and not always for the better.

To understand his point, think of what technology is and what families are for.

First, according to Crouch, the defining characteristic of technology is that it is “easy everywhere.” Think of your smartphone. It is easy to use (my 3-year-old has it figured out) and it can be taken everywhere. Twenty-six years ago, I had a phone (landline, not mobile), a camera, a video camera, cassette tapes, a boom box, a TV, videocassettes, a VHS player, boxes of books, stacks of magazines and a computer. Together, they filled a small room and weighed several hundred pounds. Now all those things are accessible on a four-ounce device that fits in my pocket.

Second, although families have many purposes, Crouch suggests that its key purpose is “the forming of persons.” This has less to do with “being” (what we are) than “becoming” (who we can be). Becoming a person is a matter of virtue formation, and Crouch focuses on two virtues in particular: “wisdom and courage.” Wisdom, he writes, is “knowing, in a tremendously complex world, what the right thing to do is — what will be most honoring of our Creator and our fellow creatures.” Courage is “the conviction and character to act.” Forming these virtues requires loving relationships: “If you don’t have people in your life who know you and love you in that radical way, it is very, very unlikely you will develop either wisdom or courage.”

Anyone with a family knows that long-term, emotionally intimate relationships are the exact opposite of easy everywhere. The phrase, “There’s an app for that,” applies to many routine tasks, but not to cultivating intimacy with your spouse, rearing your children to be responsible adults, contributing to the wellbeing of society or leaving a legacy for your descendants. These require hard work at specific times and in specific places. Technology and family, in other words, point in different directions.

The question Crouch seeks to answer in The Tech-Wise Family is how to put technology in its proper place. How can we use it without our families being overcome by it? Crouch offers 10 principles that his family has tried to live by — not always successfully, he admits.

  1. We develop wisdom and courage together as a family.
  2. We want to create more than we consume. So, we fill the center of our homes with things that reward skill and active engagement.
  3. We are designed for a rhythm of work and rest. So, one hour a day, one day a week, and one week a year, we turn off our devices and worship, feast, play and rest together.
  4. We wake up before our devices do, and they “go to bed” before we do.
  5. We aim for “no screens before double digits” [i.e., age 10] at school and at home.
  6. We use screens for a purpose, and we use them together, rather than using them aimlessly and alone.
  7. Car time is conversation time.
  8. Spouses have each other’s passwords, and parents have total access to children’s devices.
  9. We learn to sing together, rather than letting recorded and amplified music take over our lives and worship.
  10. We show up in person for the big events of life. We learn how to be human by being fully present at our moments of greatest vulnerability. We hope to die in one another’s arms.

To be honest, I found many of Crouch’s suggestions radical, especially when compared to how I and members of my family actually use technology. Crouch jokes that he’s suggesting people become “almost Amish.” He also insists that his family’s commitments need not be your family’s commitments. Still, these commitments and the rationale behind them should spark some new ideas in you, your spouse and your kids, hopefully leading to a chastened use of easy-everywhere devices and a wiser, more courageous home.


Book Reviewed:
Andy Crouch, The Tech-Wise Family: Everyday Steps for Putting Technology in Its Proper Place (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2017).

P.S. If you found my review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review page.

P.S.S. This review was written for InfluenceMagazine.com and appears here by permission.

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