Truth Plus Love | Book Review


In the Church’s first few centuries of existence, Christians spread the gospel by means of Roman roads. Today, the internet and social media are Roman-road equivalents, giving Christians the ability to share the gospel farther and faster than at any time in history. Unfortunately, a lot of Christians — especially, though not exclusively, in America — are blowing it.

Take a look at your Christian friends’ social media posts, if you doubt me. Many use Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and the like innocuously enough as platforms for sharing grandkid pics or corny jokes. To the extent that they use them to make arguments for religion, culture and politics, however, far too often their social media feeds are angry, dismissive, stereotypical and filled with “fake news.”

Looking at numerous online controversies, my wife likes to say, “Nobody ever wins an argument on Facebook.” She usually says that to tell me to knock it off. My own social media feeds, it turns out, often fail miserably at being a wholesome Christian influence on others.

InTruth Plus Love, Matt Brown identifies the biblical formula for influencing others: “speaking the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15). He uses quasi-mathematical formulae to quickly communicate the gist of his book:

  • Truth – Love = Noise
  • Love – Truth = Error
  • Truth + Love = Influence

No matter what your religious convictions are, you should be able to see the aptness of these formulations. Speaking the truth in love is a Christian imperative, but it’s also a universal need and a contributor to the common good.

We all know what truth is, but we sometimes get confused by love. Love isn’t just ooey-gooey sentimentalism. It’s the multidimensional fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22–23), so it incorporates joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control too.

Speaking of self-control, Brown offers a useful acronym about how to T-H-I-N-K before we speak: Is this true, honorable, important, necessary, kind? My guess is that Christian social media influence would increase just by answering that question before posting anything.

Truth Plus Loveis an easy-to-read book, written for a popular audience. Brown has an easy way with words, tells memorable stories, and formulates his advice in a memorable, simple way. If you’re a Christian looking to influence others toward Christ, whether online or off, this little book is a helpful guide.

Book Reviewed
Matt Brown, Truth Plus Love: The Jesus Way to Influence(Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2019).

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

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

P.P.S. Check out my Influence Podcast with Matt Brown here.

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Love Your Enemies | Book Review


Arthur C. Brooks opens Love Your Enemies with a personal anecdote about a speech he gave to conservative activists in New Hampshire. Brooks is president of the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative Washington, D.C., think tank, so the audience for the speech was “an ideological home-field crowd” for him. Among other things, he talked about how the American public perceives liberals as “compassionate and empathetic” and argued that conservatives should earn that reputation too.

After the speech, an unhappy women approached him and castigated him for being too nice to liberals. “They are not compassionate and empathetic,” she argued. “They are stupid and evil.”

Stupid and evil. Although a conservative voiced the words, the sentiment is common on the other side of the political spectrum too. A November 2018 Axios poll found that roughly the same percentage of Democrats and Republicans viewed the other party as “ignorant” (54 and 49 percent, respectively) and “evil” (21 and 23 percent, respectively). Even worse, “The share of Americans who have more generous impressions is roughly equal to the poll’s margin of error, which is 3%.”

According to Brooks, this denigration of the other side reflects more than anger or incivility. It reflects a pervasive “culture of contempt,” contempt being defined as “anger mixed with disgust.” Or, as Arthur Schopenhauer put it, contempt is “the unsullied conviction of the worthlessness of another.”

In such a culture, what is needed most is not tolerance or civility, as important as those practices are. Rather, Brooks argue, what is needed most is love, especially love for one’s enemies. Following Thomas Aquinas, Brooks defines love as “to will the good of the other.” Love doesn’t mean setting aside facts and compromising in some mushy middle. But it does require remembering that while “their views might be [worthy of contempt], no person is.”

Although Brooks is president of a secular think tank and his book is pitched at a broad audience, his is a fundamentally Christian insight. (Brooks himself is Catholic.) The book’s title comes directly from Jesus’ commandment in Matthew 5:44. That being said, Love Your Enemies is not a theological tome or a how-to book for Christian ministry, but an exercise in the application of enemy-love to American public discourse.

Along the way, Brooks outlines the features of our culture of contempt, asks whether we can afford to be nice, gives love lessons for leaders, shows how we can love our enemies even if they’re immoral, identifies why identity politics is both powerful and perilous, asks whether competition is a problem, and encourages people to disagree with one another — though without contempt, of course. Throughout, he uses anecdotes and contemporary social science to make his points. The resulting case for love in the public square is both convincing and well worth reading.

Love Your Enemies covers a lot of ground, so Brooks helpfully concludes the book with “Five Rules to Subvert the Culture of Contempt”:

  1. Stand up to the Man. Refuse to be used by the powerful.
  2. Escape the bubble. Go where you’re not invited and say things people don’t expect.
  3. Say no to contempt. Treat others with love and respect, even when it’s difficult.
  4. Disagree better. Be part of a healthy competition of ideas.
  5. Tune out. Disconnect more from the unproductive debates.

As noted above, Love Your Enemies is not a theological tome or a how-to book for Christian ministry. I read this book as a Christian minister, however, and can’t help but see its salience to Christian readers and leaders. So, I close my review with an exhortation to them:

Christ commands us to love our enemies. There’s no carve-out when the “enemy” is on the other side from us religiously, culturally or politically. There’s no exception clause for those moments when an election is on the line. Loving our enemies is simply what Christians do for others because it’s what Christ did for us. So, let’s do it. It’s the right thing to do, and if Brooks is right, it’s also the most socially beneficial thing we can do in our nation’s roiling culture of contempt.

Book Reviewed
Arthur C. Brooks, Love Your Enemies: How Decent People Can Save America from the Culture of Contempt (New York: Broadside Books, 2019).

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

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

The Miracle Lady | Book Review


Readers of a certain age remember Kathryn Kuhlman (1907–1976). She was “the miracle lady,” whose catchphrase, “I believe in miracles because I believe in God,” inspired millions to seek faith in Jesus Christ and the life-changing power of the Holy Spirit. The New International Dictionary of Pentecostal and Charismatic Movements even described her as the “world’s most widely known female evangelist.”

Younger readers are likely unfamiliar with Kuhlman, however. Her miracle services, radio ministry, and syndicated television show, though well attended and widely consumed in her day, lost influence after her death. This decline was not unexpected. The ministries of charismatic leaders rarely outlive them, especially when, as in Kuhlman’s case, their estates are diverted away from ministry maintenance toward personal gain by unscrupulous heirs.

And yet, Kathryn Kuhlman should be better known because she played a crucial role in what biographer Amy Collier Artman calls “the gentrification of charismatic Christianity.” Until the middle of the 20th century, classical Pentecostalism was the primary bearer of “Spirit-filled Christianity.” Starting on the wrong side of the tracks, socially and ecclesiastically speaking, classical Pentecostalism had increasingly moved toward respectability by mid-century, as symbolized by the Assemblies of God joining the National Association of Evangelicals as a founding member in the early 1940s. (Today, it is the NAE’s largest denominational member.)

It was charismatic Christianity that accelerated the popularity of Spirit-filled beliefs and practices in the second half of the century, however. “Kuhlman was a leader in the transformation of charismatic Christianity from a suspect form of religion to a respectable form of religiosity that was accepted and even celebrated by mainstream Christianity and culture by the end of the twentieth century.” The Miracle Ladytells the story of how this happened, focusing especially on Kuhlman’s skillful use of talk-show television.

Rather than broadcasting her spiritually charged miracle services themselves, Kuhlman invited people who had been saved, healed and filled with the Spirit to share their own testimonies, first on Your Faith and Minein the 1950s, then on I Believe in Miraclesin the mid-1960s to mid-1970s. These television shows presented normal looking, intelligent people calmly telling others what God had done for them. Out were the pyrotechnics of the Pentecostal revival service. In were normal folk talking normally about the supernatural. Artman says that Kuhlman and charismatic Christianity “came of age” together. The same could be said of them and television. Kuhlman was an early adopter of the talk-show format, which was perfectly suited for introducing otherwise cautious viewers to charismatic Christianity.

By the same token, Kuhlman in her day made it clear that she was not a “faith healer,” an appellation she shunned. Unlike Word-of-Faith evangelists, she did not believe healing was dependent on the character of one’s faith, or that faith would inoculate a person from suffering. Additionally, she did not use her television show to make continuous appeals for money, despite the high costs of production. (In this respect, she needs to be distinguished from televangelists such as Benny Hinn, who despite implicitly claiming Kuhlman’s “mantle,” never actually met or worked with her.)

Artman also discusses how Kuhlman navigated the tensions of being a woman leader in a theologically and morally conservative movement. Kuhlman adopted a rhetoric of “negation,” often stating that she wasn’t God’s “first choice,” but no man had been willing to step up and do the work, so she volunteered. “Take nothing and use it,” she often said.

Artman contrasts this rhetoric of negation with Adele Carmichael’s rhetoric of “affirmation.” She recounts a 1974 interview Kuhlman conducted with Carmichael on the set of I Believe in Miracles. (Carmichael, five years Kuhlman’s senior, lived until 2003, dying on her way to teach Sunday school at 101 years of age. She continues to hold the record as one of the Assemblies of God’s longest-serving ministers, having been first credentialed in 1918.) In that episode, Kuhlman remarked to Carmichael, “It was not the easiest thing in the world to be a woman preacher. How did you master it?” Carmichael responded, “I had a wonderful husband who was 100 percent for women preachers. As I study the Word, I believe God needs women, has a place for their ministry.” In fact, she went on, “Many times I’ve prayed thanks that God gave you your ministry and not a man,” Kuhlman demurred, saying “I always thought I was second or third choice.” But Carmichael boldly declared: “I think you were his first choice.”

Even today, unfortunately, Spirit-filled women continue to navigate the difficult waters of leadership, sometimes justifying their ministries through negation rhetoric like Kuhlman’s. Carmichael’s affirmation rhetoric offers a better way forward, it seems to me.

The Miracle Ladyis not a who-did-what-when type of biography. If you’re looking for a more traditional biography, I’d recommend Wayne Warner’s excellent Kathryn Kuhlman: The Woman Behind the Miracles. The strength of Artman’s The Miracle Ladyis that it uses Kuhlman’s life as a lens through which to view a crucial period and a key mover in the transformation of charismatic Christianity. A 2008 Barna study estimated that 80 million Americans self-identified as either “Pentecostal” or “charismatic.” This happened, at least in part, because of the efforts of Kathryn Kuhlman to mainstream Spirit-filled Christianity and broaden its appeal. For that, Kuhlman deserves to be remembered.

Book Reviewed
Amy Collier Artman, The Miracle Lady: Kathryn Kuhlman and the Transformation of Charismatic Christianity(Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2019).

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

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

Nothing to Lose | Book Review


Nothing to Lose is the second book in Victoria Selman’s mystery series featuring Ziba MacKenzie, a freelance criminal profiler who consults with New Scotland Yard. (I reviewed the first book, Blood for Blood, here.) In it, Ziba investigates two crimes: the  recent serial murders of young Persian women who look remarkably like herself and the murder of her husband some two years earlier.

The story begins in the third person, with the Saturday interrogation of a suspect. It then moves backward in time three days to Wednesday, when the serial murders started. The plot develops rapidly, and the time frame of both investigations is approximately one month. After the opening chapter, however, Selman tells the story in Ziba’s first-person narrative voice, interspersed with occasional but increasingly frantic blog posts from a potential murder victim. These blog posts provide crucial data needed to understand the resolution of the serial murders case, so pay attention!

I enjoyed the book on the whole, though an editor really should’ve condensed its 143 short chapters into fewer but longer ones. It seems to me that the number of the chapters made the book “feel” longer than it actually is. The serial murders plot receives the lion share of attention and is the best developed of the two cases. It involves two hard plot twists. I had an inkling of the first twist about halfway through, but the second one caught me by surprise. So, good on the author!

The husband-murder plot was less successful, in my opinion. In murder mysteries, it’s not uncommon for the lead character to investigate several crimes at once. (Think of just about any Bosch novel, for example.) Here, however, the second investigation distracted me more than it enhanced my enjoyment of the novel. Given the criminal enormity in the background of Ziba’s husband’s murder—he was with Scotland Yard too—it might’ve been better had Selman made this crime the focus of an entire book, not a sideline to the main plot.

One other small criticism: In my review of Blood for Blood, I mentioned that it had an “ensemble of secondary characters that grow on you.” Unfortunately, with the exceptions of Ziba herself and Jack Wolfe, her late husband’s best mate and a potential love interest, none of the characters from the first novel reappear in the second, at least not beyond a mention on a page or two. That was disappointing to me, as I’d grown to like some of the secondary characters in Ziba’s circle of acquaintance.

So, just four stars from me, not five. While Nothing to Lose wasn’t as good as Blood for Blood, it was still an enjoyable read, and I look forward to Book Three.

Book Reviewed
Victoria Selman, Nothing to Lose (Seattle, WA: Thomas & Mercer, 2019).

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

Wings of Fire | Book Review


I read Wings of Fire along with my fourth-grade son’s lunchtime reading group, and the boys loved the story. I hated it…intensely. To split the difference between the boys’ positive opinion of the book and my negative one, I’ve given the book three stars.

Wings of Fire is the first in a series of books by Tui T. Sutherland set in Pyrrhia, the land of seven warring dragon tribes. Three sisters—Burn, Blister, and Blaze—are fighting to succeed their dead mother as queen of the SandWings. This war has spread throughout Pyrrhia, and individual sisters have made alliances with other dragon tribes in order to conquer.

Meanwhile, a prophecy says that five dragonets will establish peace in Pyrrhia, with one of the sisters becoming rightful heir to her mother’s throne. The book opens with these five dragonets in hiding, being trained in warfare and dragon lore. The dragonets names are Clay, Tsunami, Starflight, Glory, and Sunny, each of whom comes from a different tribe.

Like I said above, the boys loved the book, especially the violent action sequences. That’s one of the reasons I disliked the book. To my mind, it’s too graphic for fourth graders. Additionally, I thought the plot was anticlimactic, insofar as it involved the five dragonets, as if Sutherland were just setting up the story for future books, rather than letting each book stand on its own.

Finally, I thought the book’s conclusion—at least as it involved the adult dragons—was incredibly cynical. Basically, the “prophecy” is really cover for one allegedly neutral dragon tribe to push its covert alliance with one of the SandWing sisters. The prophecy isn’t a prophecy, the good guys aren’t good, and the dragonets have been raised to believe they have a destiny, but it’s all just made up for political purposes. Cynical.

So, like I said, I hated the book intensely, but the boys loved it, which is probably why Scholastic keeps cranking out successive volumes in the series.

Book Reviewed
Tui T. Sutherland, Wings of Fire: The Dragonet Prophecy (New York: Scholastic, 2013).

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

Captain Nobody | Book Review


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Unsaved Christian | Book Review


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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