The Auschwitz Detective | Book Review


The Auschwitz Detective is Jonathan Dunsky’s sixth murder mystery featuring Adam Lapid. (I reviewed the previous novels here, here, here, here, and here; along with a Lapid short story here.) Whereas those mysteries were set in Tel Aviv in the years immediately following Israel’s independence, for which Lapid fought, The Auschwitz Detective is set in July 1944 at Auschwitz-Birkenau, where Lapid, a Hungarian Jew, is a prisoner. It is, in my opinion, Dunsky’s best story so far.

Auschwitz was the chief murder factory of the Nazi regime, and it operated at peak killing efficiency from May–July 1944. Lapid arrived weeks before novel’s weeklong action begins, and his wife and two daughters were ripped from his arms upon arrival, then immediately gassed and cremated. Imminent death threatens Lapid and the other prisoners on every page, casting a pall of hopelessness and futility over the entire novel.

When Lapid learns that another inmate has been killed—not by the Nazis but by a fellow prisoner—his detective insights kick in, and he begins to work the case. (Before the Nazis overran Hungary, Lapid had served as a police officer.) It is the search for a murderous needle in the midst of a field of murderous haystacks, but Lapid’s sense of justice demands the mystery be solved.

It is in this quest that we find the humanity amidst Auschwitz’s bestial horrors. There are, in addition, friendship, love, and occasional moments of mercy in the story, They present glimmers of hope beyond the doom that we know is coming for the prisoners, though not, we know, for Adam Lapid. The Auschwitz Detective thus serves as a prequel to Dunsky’s previous stories, providing pathos and texture to Lapid’s personality and motivation.

I ask two basic questions when I evaluate murder mysteries: Did the story keep me turning pages to find out what happens next? And did the story push too hard against my willing suspension of disbelief? A yes and no answer, respectively, makes for a successful mystery. By that standard, The Auschwitz Detective succeeds wildly. I read it in one sitting, and its grim portrayal of life in that horrible concentration had the ring of authenticity.

So, five stars from me for Jonathan Dunsky’s latest Adam Lapid story, and I look forward to the next, which I understand is already in the works!

Book Reviewed
Jonathan Dunsky, The Auschwitz Detective (Self-published, 2020).

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

Understanding Spiritual Gifts | Book Review


Understanding Spiritual Gifts by Sam Storms describes itself as a “comprehensive guide” to the topic. Its author describes himself as “an Amillennial, Calvinistic, charismatic, credo-baptistic, complementarian, Christian Hedonist.” which helps you understand his theological and ecclesiological point of view (as well as affinity for John Piper!). He is founder of Enjoying God Ministries, senior pastor of Bridgeway Church  in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, and an erstwhile professor with a Ph.D. in intellectual history from the University of Texas at Dallas.

Storms has published four books and several articles on the topic of spiritual gifts, which he helpfully lists on pages xviii–xix, and from which he has adapted some of the material in Understanding Spiritual Gifts. The previous books include The Beginner’s Guide to Spiritual Gifts (2002, reprinted 2013), Convergence (2005), Practicing the Power(2017), and The Language of Heaven (2019). I have not read the earlier books, so I cannot how or to what extent this book draws on them.

Storms defines spiritual gifts this way:

A spiritual gift is when the Holy Spirit manifests his presence and imparts his power into and through individual believers to enable them to exceed the limitations of their finite humanity so that they might faithfully and effectively fulfill certain ministry tasks for the building up of the body of Christ (20).

The author divides his argument into six parts:

  1. The Nature, Purpose, and Prayerful Pursuit of Spiritual Gifts (1–66)
  2. The Debate over the Cessation or Continuation of Miraculous Gifts of the Spirit (67–146)
  3. Revelatory Gifts of the Spirit (147–202)
  4. Speaking in Tongues (203–238)
  5. Faith, Healing, and Miracles (239–278)
  6. Other Gifts and Apostleship (279–318)

As can be seen from these titles, Storms covers the topics that are a matter of sometimes heated debate between continuationists and cessationists, as well as among continuationists, that is, among believers who are Pentecostal, charismatic, and Third Wave.

Storms directs his strongest arguments against cessationism, though these arguments are always graciously expressed. He defines a cessationist as “someone who believes that certain spiritual gifts, typically those of a more overtly supernatural nature, ceased to be given by God to the church sometime late in the first century AD (or more gradually through the course of the next few centuries)” (69). By contrast, a continuationist is “a person who believes that all the gifts of the Spirit continue to be given by God and are therefore operative in the church today and should be prayed for and sought after” (69). He devotes an entire section of the book to refuting cessationism (69–145), but he maintains a running critique of cessationism throughout the book as he examines various biblical passages.

As a charismatic, Storms positions himself between classical Pentecostalism and the so-called Third Wave. He does not affirm Pentecostalism’s interpretation of baptism in the Holy Spirit as an experience separate from and subsequent to conversion, though he does not spend much time developing his critique of its doctrine either (47). Similarly, though he does not address the topic explicitly, it is apparent that he denies Pentecostalism’s understanding of tongues as initial physical evidence, even as he leaves open the possibility that God wants every believer to speak in tongues, if only as a private language of prayer. (225–231).

Storms cites the New Apostolic Reformation (NAR) as the context for discussing the debate regarding apostolic ministry. He writes, “I question whether there would be much of a controversy over the subject of apostleship were it not for the emergence of what is called the New Apostolic Reformation” (295). His treatment of the topic threads the needle between a cessationist denial of even the possibility of contemporary apostles on the one hand and NAR’s extravagant claims about its leaders apostolic giftedness on the other. Storms surveys the New Testament data, which points to a larger group of apostles than just The Twelve plus Paul, seeming to agree with Frank Chan’s definition of an apostles “remarkable leaders sent by God to establish new spheres of ministry by setting up the key governmental structures necessary for those ministries” (295). This definition is broad enough to encompass The Twelve plus Paul, others denominated “apostle” in the New Testament, and contemporary claimants as well.

I have drawn attention to how Storms distinguishes himself from cessationists, Pentecostals, and the Third Wave so that potential readers may understand where he is coming from theologically. However, aside from the extended debate with cessationism, Storms does not spend significant space on in-house continuationist debates. Rather, he works through the New Testament material patiently and thoroughly to arrive at a reasonable interpretation of what the various spiritual gifts are, what they’re for, how to seek them, and how to use them in individual and corporate contexts.

As a classical Pentecostal, I disagree with Storms’ dismissal of Pentecostalism’s doctrines of Spirit baptism and initial physical evidence. I also found his complementarianism irksome, arising as it did in a discussion of why Paul would permit women to prophesy but not to teach men (185–186), although thankfully this is the only reference to complementarianism in the book.

On the whole, however, I appreciated Storms’ exposition of the biblical material, along with his seasoned advice about how to use the gifts, and why. And his running critique of cessationism is worth the price of the book, which is quite reasonable for a text of this length. Whether you’re a pastor or a church member, I recommend Understanding Spirit Giftsas an addition to your library. You don’t have to agree with everything Storms writes to derive value from it

Book Reviewed
Sam Storms, Understanding Spiritual Gifts: A Comprehensive Guide  (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2020).

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

Grandstanding | Book Review


Justin Tosi and Brandon Warmke’s Grandstanding is a work of philosophy informed by psychology. Its authors evince no religious commitments one way or another, and they work from secular premises. So, you might wonder why I’m recommending their book in a magazine for Christian ministers.

The answer is that Grandstanding trains a searchlight on “the use and abuse of moral talk,” in the words of its subtitle. Moral talk is an intrinsic part of spiritual leadership. Proclaiming the moral excellency of Jesus and calling believers to imitate His example are among a Christian ministers’ most basic duties (e.g., Philippians 2:5; 1 Peter 2:21; 1 John 2:6). But with this duty comes a temptation to abuse moral talk.

For example, Jesus once told a parable about a Pharisee and a tax collector who went to the temple to pray (Luke 18:9–14). The Pharisee prayed, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people — robbers, evildoers, adulterers — or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.” The tax collector, on the other hand, prayed, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” According to Jesus, only the tax collector went home “justified before God.”

Tosi and Warmke would describe the Pharisee’s prayer as an example of grandstanding, that is, “the use of moral talk for self-promotion.” Grandstanding consists of two elements: “Recognition Desire” and “Grandstanding Expression.” In other words, grandstanders want “to impress others with their moral qualities,” the authors write, and they “try to satisfy that desire by saying something in public moral discourse.”

Grandstanding can take a number of forms. Tosi and Warmke identify five, which they term piling on, ramping up, trumping up, expressing strong emotions, and dismissiveness. The Pharisee’s prayer, for example, combines a strong emotion of disgust (toward lawbreakers and tax collectors) with an air of dismissiveness (as if the Pharisee’s righteousness were self-evident). All five forms of grandstanding are legion on social media, especially Twitter.

Interestingly, write Tosi and Warmke, “You don’t have to know you’re grandstanding in order to grandstand, nor do you have to say anything false.” Perhaps, like the Pharisee, you really think you’re that good and others that bad. And maybe the others actually are nasty pieces of work, while you’re an upstanding citizen by comparison. Regardless of whether you’re witting or wrong, however, you’re still grandstanding. Jesus criticized the Pharisee for exalting himself, after all — not for telling a lie.

But if grandstanding can be unwitting and truthful, what exactly is the problem? As moral philosophers, Tosi and Warmke draw on the three main streams of ethical theory — consequentialism, deontology, and virtue ethics — to describe what’s wrong with grandstanding. In a nutshell, they argue, grandstanding has social costs, it disrespects people, and it manifests a defect in moral character.

The social costs of grandstanding include “polarization, cynicism, and outrage exhaustion.” Grandstanding disrespects people “by using others to show how good the grandstander is, or by misleading others about how good the grandstander is.” And it manifests a defect in moral character because to be virtuous, “you must do the right thing for the right reasons.” A grandstander, however, is selfishly (that is, wrongly) motivated.

Tosi and Warmke conclude Grandstanding by suggesting several strategies, both personal and social, for reducing self-promoting moral talk. As the United States enters the home stretch of its presidential election season, these strategies are helpful, especially for spiritual leaders like you and me whose calling requires speaking prophetically — that is, morally — to the pressing issues of the day.

But let us make sure we speak with clean hands and a pure heart. “It is far less important to identify grandstanding in others,” Tosi and Warmke write, “than it is to know how to avoid it in ourselves.” Or, as Jesus put it, “first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye” (Matthew 7:5).

Only by doing so will we avoid the Pharisee’s temptation to abuse moral talk for selfish ends.

Book Reviewed
Justin Tosi and Brandon Warmke, Grandstanding: The Use and Abuse of Moral Talk (New York: Oxford University Press, 2020).

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

P.P.S. This review appears in the September/October 2020 issue of Influence magazine and is posted here with permission.

 

Why I Am Still Surprised by the Power of the Spirit | Book Review


Twenty-seven years ago, Jack Deere published Surprised by the Power of the Spirit, the story of how and why he stopped being a cessationist and started practicing a charismatic form of spirituality. Why I Am Still Surprised by the Power of the Spirit significantly revises and updates its predecessor. The revisions and updates make Still Surprised a substantially new book.

Surprised included 14 chapters, an epilogue, and three appendices. Still Surprised includes 26 chapters and five appendices. Entire chapters have been revised, deleted, and/or replaced. Deere explicitly divided the old book into three parts—roughly, his testimony, his critique of cessationism, and his advice about the practice of spiritual gifts. The new book largely follows this same organizational structure. Deere’s combination of memoir, critique of cessationism, biblical exposition, and seasoned advice about using spiritual gifts is written clearly and engagingly, reads smoothly, and made me think, even when I disagreed with it.

Cessationists—that is, people who believe certain “supernatural” spiritual gifts ceased after the apostles’ death—often argue that Pentecostals and charismatics put experience before Scripture. Deere’s conversion from cessationist to charismatic reversed that argument. “My thinking had not changed because I had seen a miracle or heard God speak to me in some sort of supernatural way. … This shift in my thinking was the result of a patient, exhaustive, intense study of the healings and miracles recorded in the Scriptures” (25).

In fact, Deere reverses the cessationist argument. “There is one basic reason why otherwise Bible-believing Christians do not believe in the miraculous gifts of the Spirit today. It is this: they have not seen them” (48). The lack of experience, rather than sound biblical argument, is wellspring of cessationism. Even so, throughout the book, Deere engages cessationists’ arguments, pointing out to the contrary that the Bible consistently and persistently teaches believers to expect and experience spiritual gifts.

Having shared his testimony and refuted cessationism, Deere goes on to offer advice about how to use the spiritual gifts, especially healing. Readers within the Pentecostal, charismatic, and Third Wave traditions will notice Deere weighing in on some of the intramural debates within our communities, such as the nature of and evidence for being filled with the Holy Spirit, whether certain gifts are resident within the believer, whether Christians can be demonized, and the nature of apostolic ministry.

As a classical Pentecostal, I didn’t agree with every jot and tittle of his biblical exposition or seasoned advice. The book is well worth reading, regardless of these disagreements. Deere is a trusted charismatic teacher and practitioner, and much of his advice is just good sense, avoiding the extremes of cessationist nonuse as well as hyper-charismatic abuse.

One final comment: Among Pentecostals, especially Pentecostal academics, there is an anxiety about evangelical influence on Pentecostalism. I understand that concern and agree with it in parts. Why I’m Still Surprised by the Power of the Holy Spirit serves as a standing reminder that influence goes both ways. When the Pentecostal revival began, cessationists held the commanding heights of evangelical institutions. Today, that is no longer the case, and those cessationists who still exist concede that Pentecostals and charismatics have contributed to the revival of Christianity in this century.

Book Reviewed

Jack Deere, Why I Am Still Surprised by the Power of the Spirit: Discovering How God Speaks and Heals Today (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2020).

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

The Socialist Temptation | Book Review


The phrase American exceptionalism emerged in the late 1920s in debates between American Communist Party members and their counterparts in the Soviet Union about why the United States did not seem to follow the general laws of Marxism or need a socialist revolution. Over time, the phrase took on additional meanings, but America’s hesitancy to embrace socialism persisted. In his January 23, 1996, State of the Union Address, Bill Clinton confidently proclaimed, “The era of big government is over.”

Fast forward a decade. The Great Recession that started in George W. Bush’s administration (and continued under Barack Obama’s) prompted lawmakers to legislate bank bailouts and regulation, as well as massive stimulus spending. The November 24, 2008, cover of TIME magazine featured Barack Obama photoshopped as FDR. Its headline read, “The New New Deal.” On its February 6 cover the following year, Newsweek’s headline proclaimed, “We’re All Socialists Now.” A year later, Obama signed into law the Affordable Care and Patient Protection Act (popularly called “Obamacare”), which massively increased the role (and costs) of the federal government in healthcare provision.

This all took place before 2016, when Bernie Sanders—a self-described democratic socialist—nearly became the Democrat party candidate for president. The same year saw the election of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—an ally of Sanders, and also a democratic socialist—to the U.S. House of Representatives, along with many other socialism-friendly politicos. In 2020, Joe Biden handily defeated Sanders in the Democrat presidential primaries, but the “Biden-Sanders Unity Task Force Recommendations” list heavily to the port side of the American political sea.

America may have been exceptional with regard to socialism a century ago, but it is no longer so today.

Socialism’s rise in popularity has been rapid. According to a 2019 survey by the libertarian Cato Institute, Democrats’ favorable feelings toward capitalism and socialism flip-flopped between 2010 and 2019, from 53% favoring capitalism in 2010 to 64% favoring socialism in 2019. Fully half of Democrats say Donald Trump’s presidency has made them like capitalism less.

For Iain Murray, socialism’s rise is alarming. It does not produce a fair society, threatens individual freedom, and eviscerates civil society. The Socialist Temptation, as he has titled his book, must be resisted.

But what precisely is socialism? That’s hard to say. The classic Marxist definition of socialism as “the workers’ ownership of the means of production, distribution, and exchange” seems too narrow. Contemporary socialists largely disavow Communist totalitarianism, opting instead for varying levels of state control of market economies, whether democratic socialism (Britain’s postwar Labour Party), social democracy (most western European nations), market socialism (countries in the former Yugoslavia), state capitalism (China), or radical environmentalism (European Green parties).

This definitional diversity means enterprising socialists can always deny that the socialism they dislike is really socialist. As a corollary, it means that they can rebut conservative descriptions of a given policy as “socialist” as a conflation of socialism (good!) and communism (bad!). Defining socialism is thus like nailing jello to a wall.

Murray eventually defines it as a sociopolitical regime “in which the individual is subject to control by the collective, to the determinations of bureaucrats, and to the expropriation of wealth.” Helpful as this definition is in identifying three core elements of socialism—collectivism, bureaucracy, expropriation— it still seems too broad. All democracies are majoritarian, all have bureaucracies, and all tax the populace for ostensibly public purposes. Perhaps socialism has to do with the weight, size, and scale of these elements?

Given the vagueness of socialism’s definition, what accounts for its persistence and popularity? In Murray’s words, “why is socialism so alluring to modern Americans?” To answer that question, he draws on a field of study called “Cultural Cognition,” which derives from the anthropologist Mary Douglas the sociologist Aaron Wildavsky. Cultural Cognition suggests “a relationship between the values we hold and how we perceive risk,” Murray writes. “As different political ideologies offer packages of solutions to risks, our values make those ideologies more or less attractive to us.”

According to Wildavsky, Americans fall into three basic value groups: “hierarchists” (whom Murray calls “traditionalists”), “egalitarians,” and “individualists.” They value “order and stability,” “fairness,” and “liberty” as their primary value, respectively. Note that these things are not their sole value. Each group values the other things, too. But these things are their primary value, the value that norms the others.

According to Arnold Kling, whom Murray cites, each of these value groups talks about politics differently. Traditionalists see political contest as occurring between “civilization and barbarism,” egalitarians as between “oppressors and oppressed,” and individualists as between “freedom and coercion.”

Socialism, obviously, is an egalitarian movement. Its class analysis of economic conflict fits the oppressor/oppressed mold Kling mentions. However, socialism has appeal—and makes arguments—beyond egalitarianism. The bulk of The Socialist Temptation is an outline of the cases for and against socialism couched in the three primary values and moral languages outlined above. So, Murray asks in successive parts of the book:

  • Can socialism deliver a fair society?
  • Can socialism free the individual?
  • Can socialism sustain communities?

Murray’s answer—unsurprisingly, given the title of his book—is no.

With regard to a fair society, Murray writes, “Where there is equality, it is often the equality of misery, and that misery is usually caused by oppression, violent or otherwise, inflicted in the name of equality.” This is a purple-prose way of stating the paradox of socialism: To the degree that a society centralizes decisions about production, distribution, and exchange in order to enrich people, it impoverishes people. The greater the centralization, the greater the poverty. Additionally, to the degree that a society centralizes decision-making, it empowers bureaucrats at the expense of the people. The greater the centralization, the greater the disempowerment.

With regard to a free society, Murray notes that socialists typically speak of freedom in positive terms, whereas classical liberals (today’s conservatives) speak of it in negative terms. Positive freedom is “the freedom to engage in the common government of the polity.” It correlates with positive rights, “the right to have something provided for you—the right to a job, for instance, or to welfare.” Negative freedom is “the freedom to be left alone, free from constraint.” It correlates with negative rights, “rights not to have something done to you. The right that the government won’t interfere with your speech or religion, for instance.”

If this seems somewhat abstract, just keep in mind the debate over Obamacare’s contraception mandate. It pitted women who claimed a positive right to employer-provided contraception against the negative right of religion-minded employers not to fund abortifacients. Both sides made an appeal to freedom, but what they each meant by freedom was very different.

Murray makes the argument for negative freedom and negative rights and concludes: “Socialists use the language of freedom, but a close examination of their aims reveals how hostile they are to the value of freedom.” By this, he means the value of freedom in advancing a socialist vision of equality. Free speech is for the oppressed, to equalize their situation against their oppressors. It is not for the oppressors, whose speech is called “hate speech” because it is oppressive, and whose “privileged” voices must be “canceled” or “deplatformed.” Consequently, Murray writes: “Where socialism allows freedom, it does so on the basis of dictating what you are allowed to do with that freedom.”

Finally, with regard to sustaining communities, socialism has an obvious appeal. It is, after all, about the social dimension of human existence, about our common life together. Socialism seems community-minded. Capitalism by contrast, or so socialists contend, is only about greedy individualists.

But that’s not quite right, is it? The question is not whether a society has a state, that is, the machinery of government. Nor is it about whether a society has a market: all societies have markets where goods and services are produced, distributed, and exchanged. The question, rather, is who decides. Under socialism, a society’s decisions are increasingly centralized in bureaucracies, often government bureaucracies. Under capitalism, those decisions are decentralized.

This doesn’t leave the individual standing powerless before the state, however, for civil society exists as a mediating institution between the individual and the state. In free societies—negatively free, with negative rights—civil society institutions are many and robust, from churches to softball leagues to the Rotary Club and (surprise!) even to labor unions. In socialist societies, there is a tendency to (wittingly or not) strip civil society of its powers and transfer them to the state. Private charity, for example, becomes public welfare, delivered with all the warmth only an impersonal bureaucracy can muster. In other words, in a socialist society, the state tends to coopt the institutions of civil society, which over the long haul, is not good for the flourishing of that society.

In summary, then, Iain Murray’s argument is that socialism doesn’t deliver on its promise of a fair or free society, nor does it sustain community in the most important sense. My guess is that some, like me, will find this argument persuasive, even if there are quibbles here and there. My guess is also that others are going to dispute this book at every point, arguing that Murray’s negative examples mischaracterize what real socialism requires or has accomplished.

Which brings us back to the all-important definitional question: What is socialism? My guess is that how you define it will largely determine your evaluation of this book.

Book Reviewed
Iain Murray, The Socialist Temptation (Washington, DC: Regnery Gateway, 2020).

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

Corona Crisis | Book Review


The COVID-19 pandemic can be viewed through many interpretive lenses. In Corona Crisis, Mark Hitchcock views it through the lens of eschatology, that branch of Christian theology concerned with end-times events. Specifically, he views it through the lens of dispensational premillennialism.

Dispensational premillennialism holds a pessimistic view of history. The course of world history will become increasingly difficult before Jesus Christ raptures believers into Heaven, signaling the start of the seven-year Great Tribulation. In the first half of that tribulation, the Antichrist will unite the world under a global government and religion, promising peace. However, in the second half, that peace will turn into tyranny as the Antichrist persecutes with ferocious intensity those who have come to faith in Christ during that period. At the end of the Great Tribulation, Jesus Christ will visibly return to Earth (the Second Coming), establish his kingdom, and reign for 1,000 years (the Millennium).

The persistent temptation of dispensational premillennialism is date-setting. By this I mean the tendency of some dispensationalists to interpret current events as the fulfillment of biblical prophecy. The most notorious (and roundly mocked) recent example of this is Edgar C. Whisenant’s book, 88 Reasons Why the Rapture Will Be in 1988. The book caused a stir when it was published, but the date Whisenant identified came and went and believers were still here.

Corona Crisis is blessedly free of that kind of date-setting and eschatological speculation. In fact, Hitchcock specifically denies that the COVID-19 pandemic is a sign of the imminent Great Tribulation. Instead, he writes, “most of what we see today is not the direct fulfillment of end-time prophecy but rather a foreshadow of what will come after God’s people have been raptured to heaven” (28). He reiterates this point later in the book: “The coronavirus is not a fulfillment but a frightening foreshadow, a foretaste, of what lies ahead” (102). How does he know this? “The rapture has not occurred (the bride of Christ is still here)” (102–103).

Hitchcock’s anti-speculative bent was welcome to me. While he clearly believes Christians need to know how to read the “signs of the times” (Matthew 16:1–3), he places four parameters around that belief

  • “First, we must shun a sensationalistic approach to current events and world headlines” (19).
  • “Second, current events, headlines, and world news must be assessed in light of the Bible, not the other way around” (19).
  • “A third important principle for signs of the times is to remember that they relate directly to Jesus’ second coming back to earth, not the rapture” (21).
  • “One final parameter for signs of the times is that most of what we see today is not the direct fulfillment of end-time prophecy but rather a foreshadow of what will come after God’s people have been raptured to heaven” (28).

Given Hitchcock’s anti-speculative bent, the question that obviously arises is whether end-times prophecy is a helpful interpretive lens for viewing the COVID-19 pandemic. If dispensational premillennialism cannot differentiate whether this pandemic (or any other) is a sign of the times, what value does it have in interpreting the times? Hitchcock seems to answer this question when he writes, “I believe coronavirus is part of the stage setting for the end times.” (30). How so? It is “revealing the interconnectedness of the modern world as well as accelerating it.” Moreover, “COVID-19 is also speeding the rise of globalism. The pandemic intersects with the drive toward a one-world economy and government that will fall under the rule of a global strongman, the final Antichrist” (30–31).

Part of the difficulty with this kind of analysis is that it pushes in only one direction. Yes, there are globalizing trends in current history. There are also localizing trends, however. The push and pull of centralization and decentralization seems to be a constant of history, as empires rise, are resisted, and fall. Given this history, why should we assume that the present moment is the foreshadowing moment, rather than just another iteration of a longstanding cyclical pattern? Those who read events through the lens of biblical prophecy need to keep in mind that we have a bias for the normativity of the contemporaneous that may distort our views of both the past and future.

In saying this, I’m not making a comment about the correctness of dispensational premillennialism as an eschatological viewpoint. (Eschatology is a matter of dispute among evangelicals, and I don’t want to weigh in on that here.) I’m simply highlighting the difficulty of using such an eschatological viewpoint as a way of analyzing current events. Even Hitchcock concedes that until the rapture happens, we can only interpret the current pandemic as a foreshadowing of something worse to come, but we have no idea of the timeframe of the advent of that something worse.

Hitchcock ends Corona Crisis helpfully, and less controversially, with four biblical strategies: 1) maintain perspective, 2) take practical steps, 3) keep praying, and 4) proclaim the gospel (107–123). These four points evince a noncontroversial, unifying, evangelistic point of view. I’ll leave the last word to Hitchcock, a word that I heartily endorse: “Times of upheaval provide unique opportunities to hold out the gospel” (122).

Book Reviewed
Mark Hitchcock, Corona Crisis: Plagues, Pandemics, and the Coming Apocalypse (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2020).

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

God, Trump, and COVID-19 | Book Review


I am working on a review essay about Christian responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. My research largely focuses on books written by, marketed to, or likely to be read by evangelical Christians, where evangelical is defined broadly. Stephen E. Strang’s God, Trump, and COVID-19 is one of those books. (The others were written by Walter Brueggemann, Mark Hitchcock, John C. Lennox, Kristi Mair and Luke Cawley, John Piper, and N. T. Wright.)

Strang is a charismatic Christian with roots in the Assemblies of God. I was interested in reading his perspective because I am a Pentecostal minister, ordained by the Assemblies of God, and currently serving as executive editor of its leadership perspective.

(I should quickly add that this review states my personal opinion only and should not be understood as a denominational evaluation. I should also acknowledge that Strang is a friend of my father’s and has always been kind to my family, and on the couple of occasions where I have met him, to me.)

Unfortunately, despite theological and spiritual affinity with Strang on a number of issues, I cannot recommend this book. There are several reasons for this:

First, Strang does not grapple in a serious way the wisdom the Bible brings to bear on current situation. He does not draw from the well of systematic theology or apologetics to illuminate the pandemic’s meaning. And he does not offer an extended reflection on the ethical dimensions of the pandemic. The other authors I am reading do what Strang does not. He writes, “I want the reader to understand where God is in the midst of a historically tense, intense time” (xv). The desire is good, but the execution is not.

What Strang does instead of grappling with the Bible, theology, and ethics is focus on politics and prophecy. My second and third criticisms have to do with these two issues.

Let me start with politics. Throughout the book, Strang tells readers that God, Trump, and COVID-19 is a follow-up book to God, Trump, and the 2020 Election, published in late 2019. In these books, Strang offers a full-throated defense of President Trump’s action specifically with regard to the pandemic and generally on public policy, respectively. Throughout the COVID-19 book—I have not read the 2020 election book—Strang portrays Trump as the decisive, farsighted leader Christians need to support, all the while castigating Democrats, the Left, and mainstream media. Whatever you may think of Strang’s arguments, his focus is on the political dimensions of the crisis, which is perhaps why he doesn’t deal in any in-depth way with biblical, theological, and ethical issues.

Third, Strang gives too much attention to modern-day prophets such as David Wilkerson, Shawn Bolz, Chuck D. Pierce, and the like. Chapter 1 opens with a 1986 prophecy allegedly given by David Wilkerson:

I see a plague coming on the world and the bars, church, and government shut down. The plague will hit New York City and shake it like it has never been shaken. The plague is going to force prayerless believers into radical prayer, into their Bibles and repentance will be the cry from true men of God in the pulpit. And out of it will come a third Great Awakening that will sweep America and the world (1; cf. 69–71)

I use the term allegedly because the authenticity of the quote has been disputed by fact-checkers. Strang defends the authenticity of the prophecy by attributing it to a hand-written note by Mike Evans based on a conversation the latter had with Wilkerson in 1986. Evans stuck the note in the Bible he was using at the time, and when recently going through that Bible, he claims that the note fell out.

While the Wilkerson prophecy portends a severe plague, prophecies by Bolz and Pierce point to something less. Strang writes, “I believe God’s prophets [i.e., Bolz and Pierce] were saying it [the pandemic] wouldn’t be as bad as the politicians, medical experts, and liberal media were saying” (75). In favor of that interpretation, he notes that the virus seems to have peaked in mid- to late-April in the most affected areas of the country (especially New York City). However, the book was written and published prior to the summer outbreak that has pushed COVID-19 cases and related deaths higher. With another outbreak expected in the fall, those numbers could go higher still.

Fourth, Strang displays throughout the book a penchant for relying on spiritual leaders for accurate information about the pandemic and its effects, even as he seems to downplay expert testimony. (In the quote above, note how he throws “medical experts” under the bus alongside “politicians” and “liberal media.”) This penchant gives Strang’s analysis a patina of journalism, even as his sources are passing along second- and third-hand information.

The most egregious example of this comes in Chapter 3, “China’s Role in the Pandemic.” Strang tells how he received a text message from his friend Frank Amedia. Strang writes that Amedia “had new information from one of his Chinese friends that on the surface sounded like a major conspiracy theory.” Rather than emerging from a Wuhan wet market, the text claimed the virus came “from a Wuhan virology lab that collected hundreds of viruses with the idea of finding vaccines or learning enough to prevent another SARS or swine flu outbreak” (18). Strang tracked down Amedia’s source, whom he names “Jay.” Jay was “a Chinese American Christian who was getting his information from the ‘grass roots’ in China via the internet, and much of it contradicting what we were hearing in the media at the time” (20).

In other words, Strang received a tip from a non-medical expert (Amedia) based on information from another non-medical expert who was not in-country (Jay) who was passing along information received from non-medical sources within China. Given the malfeasance of the Chinese government in its handling of the outbreak in Wuhan, we may never know the truth about the pandemic’s origin. And even mainstream sources and commentators acknowledge the potential of an accidental release of the virus from a Wuhan lab. So, maybe there are elements of truth in Strang’s reportage. My point is that its provenance is suspect. Much of what he reports as insider knowledge was being speculated about on the internet at the same time he received this tip from Amedia. (I know because I was reading all sorts of speculation at that time on the internet.) Public speculation does not become insider knowledge just because you heard it from a guy, who heard it from a guy, who heard it from several other guys, which is literally what the Amedia-Jay-grass-roots chain of testimony is.

My fifth and final criticism is the dark conspiratorial tone with which Strang ends the book. Strang writes:

What if I were to tell you that these events were planned? [In context, these “events” were long-term social trends such as family breakdown that preceded the pandemic.]  What if I were to tell you that powerful ungodly groups actually control/own much of the ‘mainstream’ media, the central banks, and many of the world’s largest corporations and that they all were working in tandem toward an agenda? I know, it sounds crazy, but I believe it’s actually true! Even the UN was founded by some of those very same elites. Look up its history. Now the UN Agenda 2020 and Agenda 2030 clearly lay out this go-forward plan for us all to see. It is slowly pushing us toward globalization. The UN wants people to be all mixed with no borders or national identities. This is their strategy (94).

Strang goes on to describe this as “the ‘beast system’ being finalized and prepared for the next phase” (94). It would’ve been one step closer to reality had Hilary Clinton become president in 2016. However, “God intervened,” writes Strang. “Just when the cabal was about to complete the globalist plan, further give up our rights and sovereignty, and solidify Agenda 2030 through various trade deals, treaties, and laws—just when the nail was about to be driven into the coffin, God heard the prayers of the saints and gave us a last-minute reprieve! He gave us a billionaire who was able to align with the patriots inside the government who wanted to stop the cabal and its sinister plan for our nation and world” (95).

Earlier, Strang acknowledge that Jay’s story seemed like a “major conspiracy theory.” But Jay’s account of the virus’ origin pales as a major conspiracy theory compared to the one Strang closes the book with: the eight-decade globalist cabal that began with the founding of the United Nations. Strang tosses off this conspiracy theory in the final pages of the book without providing any evidence for it whatsoever.

So, for these reasons, I cannot recommend this book as a serious Christian analysis of the COVID-19 pandemic. It is too light biblically and theologically, too reliant on contemporary prophesies, and too strong on conspiracism. Pentecostals and charismatics need to speak into the current situation, showing where God is in the midst of our intense, tense reality. God, Trump, and COVID-19 is not the word we need, however.

Book Review
Stephen E. Strang, God, Trump, and COVID-19: How the Pandemic Is Affecting Christians, the World, and America’s 2020 Election (Lake Mary, FL: FrontLine, 2020).

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

The Order | Book Review


**********SPOILERS ALERT**********

Daniel Silva has written some of my favorite suspense novels. The Order is not among them. While the book’s topic—the antisemitism of Europe’s far right, and its intermingling with Catholicism—is both interesting and relevant, the book’s execution is not.

Let me, first, deal with the topic. Antisemitism is on the rise in Europe, as well as the United States. One source of that is the European far right, whose nationalist parties verge on or veer into fascism. Historically, some of those parties held close ties with traditionalist forms of Catholicism. The fact of those ties is not a matter of dispute, though their extent is. (Think of the strenuous debates about Pius XII the Shoah, for example.)

One of the reasons for Catholicism’s antisemitism problem—and for Protestantism’s too—is the anti-Jewish polemic of several passages in the New Testament. For example, during the nighttime trial of Jesus by the Sanhedrin, we read this in Matthew 27:25: “All the people answered, ‘His blood is on us and on our children!’” This verse historically served as the basis for the Christian accusation of deicide against the Jewish people.

These two elements—far-right antisemitism, Catholic antisemitism—are the fuel that drives The Order forward. And Gabriel Allon seems like the perfect driver for Silva’s vehicle. The lone child of a Birkenau survivor, a young assassin who meted out justice against Palestinian terrorists in the wake of the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre of Israeli athletes, the director of Mossad, a spy with friendly ties to the current pope, if anyone can stop far-right anti-Semites, Allon can. And should.

But, and it’s a very large but, the way Silva executes the plot strains credulity. My two rules for successful suspense novels are that they 1) keep me turning pages and 2) don’t push my willing suspension of disbelief too far. Silva is such a talented writer that he easily satisfied my rule. I read this late into the night one Saturday evening.

The Order fails at the level of my second rule, however. Why? Largely because Silva steers the plot onto Christian origins and drives it badly there. 

I’ve noted Matthew 27:25 and hinted at other New Testament passages that have served as the basis of Christian antisemitism, historically speaking. Instead of reading these passages as examples of intra-Jewish polemic, which they are, Silva’s plot requires that they be read as late historical inventions designed by Christians to curry favor with the Romans. This leads him to deny the historicity of these trials in toto, though not Jesus’ crucifixion.

To underscore the historical unreliability of the Gospel Accounts, Silva concocts a mysterious document called The Gospel According to Pontius Pilate that tells the unvarnished truth about Jesus’ death. (Of course, no such document exists, nor does Silva claim it’s real.)

At the same time as Allon and his colleagues search for this elusive Gospel, they uncover the machinations of the Order of St. Helena, a secretive and wealthy Catholic order with fascist ties and a desire to capture the papacy. To do that, the order murders Allon’s friend the pope, the event that sets the novel rolling in the first place.

The plot of The Order turns on whether Allon will be able both to find Pilate’s gospel and to reveal publicly the Order’s murderous designs. Since this is Gabriel Allon we’re talking about, the conclusion is foregone.

And yet, the book doesn’t work, at least not for me. I have graduate training in Bible and theology, so I’m aware of the debates about the historicity of the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ trial and crucifixion. To be honest, I find the notion that such a trial could never have taken place not credible. The notion that Jerusalem’s first-century priestly aristocracy was too scrupulous and too busy to hold a night-time trial on the eve of Passover strains this reader’s credulituy. In fact, the first-century high priests were criticized by multiple segments of Jewish society. If you think the Gospels are rough on the Temple aristocracy, try reading the Qumran community’s view of them, or Josepus’.

Moreover, the entire plot of The Order depends on a cabal of religious leaders breaking and bending rules in order to arrive at a politically desirable destination. Does Silva not recognize the contradiction of saying that a power-hungry Catholic order can do precisely what he denies a power-hungry Temple aristocracy could do? This seems psychologically implausible to me. When power is on the line, powerful people can and do break the rules to maintain their grip on power. That’s essentially what the Gospels accuse the priestly aristocracy of doing in Jesus’ day. It’s what Silva accuses the Order of doing.

The reason Silva seems to find such an accusation implausible is because of how that accusation was misread and abused in later centuries by Gentile Christians. And let’s be very clear: Silva is absolutely right that in the history of Christianity, passages such as Matthew 27:25 were used by Christian theologians and political leaders across centuries and denominations—Catholic and Protestant—to lay the charge of deicide at the feet of the Jewish people as a whole. This was and is both a sin and a stain, and such charges of deicide need to be firmly and persistently refuted.

But one can point out that a passage has been wrenched out of its original intra-Jewish polemical context and abused by Gentile Christians without undermining the basic historicity of the passage, as Silva does. The Gospels were written at a time when what became Judaism and what became Christianity had not yet parted ways. Many, if not most, “Christians” during this period were also “Jews.” Indeed, Josephus writes complimentarily about James, the brother of Jesus, who led the Jerusalem church up to the eve of the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. So, was James a Jew or a Christian? It’s anachronistic to force a choice between the two.

One more thing before I conclude: In the course of debunking the historicity of the Gospels’ account of Jesus’ trial—among other things—Silva introduces a mysterious Father Joshua at two points in the novel, one crucial and another less so. To me, this figure—with stigmata, no less!—is so obviously a Christ figure that his appearance introduces massive cognitive dissonance into the story. On the one hand, the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ death and divinity are unreliable. On the other hand, Father Joshua appears out of nowhere, provides Allon with crucial proof of Pilate’s gospel, speaks with a Galilean accent, and even appears at one point to be walking on the waters of Venice! If you’re going to be skeptical, be skeptical, Mr. Silva! Don’t also be mystical at the same time!

So, two stars from me for The Order. It’s a page-turner, sure, but it pushed my willing suspension of disbelief too far. The Order, if I may say so, is The Da Vinci Code if Dan Brown could write as well as Daniel Silva. But that comparison doesn’t improve the latest Gabriel Allon mystery, unfortunately.

Book Reviewed

Daniel Silva, The Order (New York: Harper, 2020).

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

Neighborliness | Book Review


Neighborliness is a beautifully written book that is difficult to categorize in terms of genre. Part memoir, part social analysis, part plan of action, the book explores what happens when Christians reach across the dividing lines of race and economic class. In that sense, it is one man’s journey representing a potential destination for American churches.

David Docusen, the book’s author, is by turns a church planter, founder of a community development organization, and itinerant minister who wants to focus the American church’s attention on racism and economic inequality.

The book opens, as all good odysseys do, in the middle of the story. “We all look alike,” he said to himself tearfully as he surveyed his congregation gathered for worship one Sunday morning in Charlotte, North Carolina. Same race. Same economic status. Same stage of life.

Charlotte is a diverse city, however. Desiring to see that beautiful diversity reflected in the church that started in his living room, Docusen began a personal journey of building relationships across neighborhoods, which also meant across the lines of race and economic status.

Along the way, Docusen learned a lot about the way racism and income inequality have shaped our communities, separating us from one another. Out of a desire to help people holistically, he started a community development organization called Freedom Communities, whose motto is “Disrupting the cycle of intergenerational poverty one family at a time.”

The book’s greatest strengths are Docusen’s graceful way of telling stories that illuminate complex social and economic trends. This is where the book shines. Pastors who read the book can learn much from following Docusen’s example of building relationships with other pastors throughout the city, of listening to the needs of the poor from their own mouths, of realizing that no community — however poor it may be — lacks resources, and many other lessons.

There’s also a smack in the face to churches that want to send volunteers to city-center churches but who don’t first ask those churches what they actually need. There’s nothing worse than a church more concerned with a public pledge of volunteer hours than in helping others in terms that they understand as actually helping them.

One lacuna in the book, at least for this minister, was evangelism. Docusen is quite right that the gospel extends to all of life. Gospel-minded Christians thus must be concerned about race and income inequality. However, there’s a transformative power to evangelism that I am sure Docusen recognizes — he is a minister, after all — but doesn’t highlight in this book.

That aside, Neighborliness got me thinking that there are holes in the Christianity I practice related to race and income inequality. And these holes also exist in local churches throughout America. We should proclaim the gospel, and then demonstrate it through how we relate to others, especially those whose color and financial status are different than our own.

Book Review
David Docusen, Neighborliness: Finding the Beauty of God Across Dividing Lines (Austin, TX: Fedd Books, 2020).

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

Leading Small Groups That Thrive | Book Review


I vividly remember the first small group I led. It was Sunday morning, I was a seminarian in my early twenties, and I was wearing a suit. (Men still did that in the early 1990s.) I arranged metal folding chairs in a circle, welcomed the attendees, and spent the next 45 minutes lecturing them.

When it was over, a woman asked if every session would be a repeat of that morning’s performance. I took umbrage at what I perceived to be her questioning of my teaching abilities. She didn’t return for the second session. After a couple of months, nobody else did either.

The group failed, but it wasn’t the group’s fault. It was mine. I had not led the group well.

John Maxwell says that everything rises and falls on leadership. That sounds pretty egotistical, until you remember that he also defines leadership as influence. A true leader influences others. Or, as Howard Hendricks has put it, “Your measure as a leader is not what you do, but what others do because of what you do.” A leader catalyzes change in others.

In Leading Small Groups That Thrive, Ryan T. Hartwig, Courtney W. Davis, and Jason A. Sniff identify five things catalytic small group leaders can do to “maximize the benefits that result from thriving, transformational group experiences.”

Hartwig and Davis are social science professors at Christian universities, and Sniff is a small groups pastor at a multisite church in Illinois. Their interest in effective small group leadership flows out of transformational experiences each of them had in small group settings.

What makes Leading Small Groups That Thrive unique is its original research. The authors surveyed approximately 1,000 small groups members, leaders, and pastors. They used Steve Gladen’s “Spiritual Health Assessment” as a baseline questionnaire, but they also asked members questions about group practices such as time commitment, conflict, and leader characteristics. Small group leaders were asked additional questions about issues such as small group priorities, leadership development, and commitment to the group.

Some of their findings are counterintuitive. For example:

  • “The more time a group spends in prayer, the less a group contributes to its members’ spiritual growth. In contrast, the more time the leader spends in prayer, the more the group contributes to spiritual growth.”
  • “The more time a group worships together and talks through logistics and announcements, the more it contributes to its members’ spiritual growth.”
  • “Groups that place less emphasis on discipleship see more spiritual growth among their members.”
  • “The most effective groups were either really small (fewer than eight members) or pretty big (more than seventeen members).”
  • “Newer groups that had been meeting for less than three months contributed the most to individual spiritual growth. … On the other hand, we discovered that outstanding group practices can counteract the decline in impact that occurs as groups age.”

These counterintuitive research findings are interesting, of course, but the heart of the book is a research-based model of five actions catalytic small group leaders take. They 1) articulate purpose, 2) set the stage, 3) cultivate shared ownership, 4) stimulate meaningful conversations, and 5) embrace difficult conversations.

Each of these points is worth discussing at length, but since I started this review with my personal failure to stimulate meaning conversation among my small group members, let me park there for a few paragraphs.

The problem with the way I led my first small group is that I felt my job was “dispensing information” rather than “facilitating transformation,” as the authors put it. “In the most effective groups,” they write, “members contributed equally to discussion and talked among themselves, rather than speaking solely to the leader.” This discuss-among-yourselves approach works because it turns members from passive listeners to active participants. Everyone now has an informational and relational stake in the conversation.

Interestingly, such robust discussion resists the tendency of older groups to become less effective: “when groups engage in high-quality discussions, they can almost entirely counteract the decay they would otherwise experience over time. Simply put, quality discussion creates continued spiritual growth.”

The authors go on to offer detailed, practical advice about how to ask better questions in a strategic sequence, how to set up the room for better discussion, and how to facilitate the conversation with purpose and flexibility. I do not doubt that my first small group would’ve been much more effective had I followed the authors’ advice. Unfortunately, I had to learn these lessons through trial and error, but you can learn those lessons better from this book.

I’ve focused on better discussion because this was where I failed my first small group, but Hartwig, Davis and Sniff’s book offers sound advice about all the topics it addresses. If you’re a small group leader, or want to be one, or if you’re a small groups pastor who wants to provide a good resource to your leaders, I recommend Leading Small Groups That Thrive.

Book Reviewed
Ryan T. Hartwig, Courtney W. Davis, and Jason A. Sniff, Leading Small Groups That Thrive: Five Shifts to Take Your Group to the Next Level (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2020).

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

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

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