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.

Where Is God in a Coronavirus World? | Book Review


Where Is God in a Coronavirus World? by John C. Lennox is a short essay about “the problem of natural evil,” the suffering that is “a result of natural disasters and diseases, for which humans are not (directly) responsible.” By contrast, “the problem of moral evil” is “suffering for which men and women are directly responsible” (page 14). In other words, Lennox’s book is an outline of theodicy.

The problem of evil, in whatever form—natural or moral—is often taken to be an argument against the rationality of belief in God, as well as for the rationality of atheism. In the words of the Scottish philosopher David Hume put it, citing Epicurus: “Epicurus’s old questions are yet unanswered. Is [God] willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then is he impotent. Is he able but not willing? Then is he malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Whence then is evil?” (page 26).

Unfortunately, however, atheism—at least the kind informed by evolutionary naturalism—is unable to explain why something is good (or bad). Lennox quotes evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins here to good effect:

In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reasons in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference. DNA neither knows nor cares. DNA just is. And we dance to its music (page 26).

Perhaps this bleak determinism appeals to some, but with Lennox, I am inclined to see it as both unreasonable and unlivable.

If, however, there is no God, and therefore there are no transcendent values, then how can there be any objective standard of God? If there is no good or evil in any case, the concept of morality disappears, and moral outrage is absurd. The so-called “problem” of evil—moral or natural—dissolves into the pitiless indifference of uncaring matter (page 29).

Once Lennox dismisses atheism, he turns to Christian theism. “How can there be a coronavirus if there is a loving God?” (as the title of chapter 4 puts it). He begins to answer that question by paraphrasing Penn State viral ecologist Marilyn Rossock, who argues that “viruses are essential to life, and that at most 1% (a high estimate) of them are pathogenic—that is, harmful to their hosts” (page 34). In other words, he appeals to laws of nature—that is, scientific descriptions of the way things work—as a theodicy.

That only pushes the question back further, however, as Lennox recognizes. He asks, “could God not have made a world without viral pathogens?” (page 35). His argument then takes an anthropological turn and gestures at a free-will theodicy:

In fact, people who wish they inhabited a world without the possibility of evil are actually wishing themselves out of existence. The reason is that one of the greatest gifts that God has given us is that of free will. We can yes or no, and that capacity opens up wonderful things: love, trust and genuine relationships with God and each other. However, that very same wonderful and good capacity makes us capable of evil, even though it does not give us permission to do evil (36).

In the biblical narrative, it is Adam and Eve’s misuse of free will that introduces both moral and natural evils into the world. “What happened in Genesis 3 was that the human rejected God, and sin entered the world,” writes Lennox. “The consequences were huge. There was death—first in the spiritual sense of a rift in the relationship between humans and God, and, later, in the sense of physical death” (pages 38–39).

Interestingly, Lennox concedes that “none of us has ever been satisfied with the outcome of that particular discussion,” that is, about “what a good, loving and all-powerful God should, could or might have done” (42). As a Christian, I do not think the atheist use of the problem of evil, in whatever form, makes an airtight case against belief in God. The case has too many leaks, especially since it proceeds on a sense of moral evaluation that it cannot maintain metaphysically. But that doesn’t mean theodicies are airtight arguments either, at least from a philosophical point of view.

So, Lennox turns to a different question: “If we accept—as we must—that we are in a universe that presents us with a picture of both biological beauty and deadly pathogens, is there any evidence that there is a God whom we can trust with the implications, and with our lives and futures?” (page 43).

Here, Lennox dives back into the biblical narrative, focusing on the Incarnation:

Christianity claims that the man Jesus Christ is God incarnate—the Creator become human. At the heart of the Christian message is the death of Jesus Christ on a cross just outside Jerusalem. The question at once arises: if he is God incarnate, what was he doing on a cross? Well, it at the very least means that God has not remained distant from human pain and suffering but has himself experienced it.

Therefore, a Christian is not so much a person who has solved the problem of pain, suffering, and the coronavirus, but one who has come to love and trust a God who has himself suffered (page 44).

And, obviously, Christ’s story does not end in death but in resurrection. “The importance of this cannot be overestimated,” Lennox writes. “It addresses a fundamental difficulty that the atheistic worldview cannot cope with: the problem of ultimate justice” (45). And not only justice. The death and resurrection of Jesus also make a way for the salvation of those who do evil. Those who repent and confess faith in Jesus “receive forgiveness; peace with the personal God who created and upholds the universe; a new life with new powers; and the promise of a world where suffering will be no more” (page 47).

Where Is God in a Coronavirus World is short, coming in at only 64 pages, and my review has gone on long enough. What I appreciate about the book is three things: 1) It clearly identifies the problem. 2) It shows the deficiency of atheism in accounting for the objective nature of good and bad. 3) It offers several lines of theodicy that are elements of a Christian theistic account of evil, whether natural or moral, even as it recognizes their philosophical limitations. And 4) it focuses on the heart of the Christian narrative—the Incarnation of the Word of God—as a way of accounting for both the reality of evil and for hope that it will be overcome in the future.

Where Is God in a Coronavirus World? is more like a sketch of directions on a napkin rather than a detailed topographical map. But it will get the average reader where he or she needs to go.

Book Reviewed
John C. Lennox, Where Is God in a Coronavirus World? (Charlotte, NC: The Good Book Company, 2020).

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

Coronavirus and Christ | Book Review


It is incumbent upon followers of Jesus Christ to think, feel, and act Christianly—that is, like Christ—at all times. This includes how we think, feel, and act with regard to the COVID-19 pandemic that has radically changed life’s routines for millions, if not billions, over the course of this year. In the face of this upending of normalcy, John Piper’s Coronavirus and Christ asks, “Do we have a Rock under our feet? A Rock that cannot be shaken—ever?” (page 8).

The answer comes in Part 1, “The God Who Reigns Over the Coronavirus.” Piper’s thesis is that “the same sovereignty that could stop the coronavirus, yet doesn’t, is the very sovereignty that sustains the soul in it” (pages 23, 38, 45, 50; emphasis in original). Piper is a well-known Calvinist, and this answer reflects his theological commitment to “all-pervasive sovereignty” or “meticulous sovereignty” (pages 40, 49). Piper writes:

So when I say that God’s sovereignty means that he can do, and in fact does do, all that he decisively wills to do, I mean there is no force outside himself that can thwart or frustrate his will. When he decides for a thing to happen, it happens. Or to put it another way, everything happens because God wills it to happen (page 39, emphasis in original).

Three pages late, Piper draws the logical conclusion from this view of sovereignty:

The coronavirus was sent, therefore, by God. This is not a season for sentimental views of God. It is a bitter season. And God ordained it. God governs it. He will end it. No part of it is outside his sway. Life and death are in his hand (page 42).

That being the case, in Part 2, “What Is God Doing Through the Coronavirus?” Piper turns to Scripture to identify six possible answers to God’s purpose in the pandemic. They are:

  1. God is giving the world in the coronavirus outbreak, as in all other calamities, a physical picture of the moral horror and ugliness of God-belittling sin (page 61, emphasis in original).
  2. Some people will be infected with the coronavirus as a specific judgment form God because of their sinful attitudes and actions (page 69).
  3. The coronavirus is a God-given wake-up call to be ready for the second coming of Christ (page 73).
  4. The coronavirus is God’s thunderclap call for all of us to repent and realign our lives with the infinite worth of Christ (page 77).
  5. The coronavirus is God’s call to his people to overcome self-pity and fear, and with courageous joy, to do the good works of love that glorify God (page 87).
  6. In the coronavirus God is loosening the roots of settled Christians, all over the world, to make them free for something new and radical and to send them with the gospel of Christ to the unreached peoples of the world (page 95).

I am not going to take the time to offer a detailed rebuttal of Piper’s thesis or the six possible answers outlined above. Instead, I would simply point to three lines of questions that Christian readers might ask in a critical reading of Coronavirus and Christ:

First, is Piper’s account of God’s meticulous sovereignty in fact the Bible’s own? I ask because the line of reasoning in these two sentences (quoted above) seems a non sequitur: “When he decides for a thing to happen, it happens. Or to put it another way, everything happens because God wills it to happen.” I agree that if God wills something to happen, it will happen. This doesn’t mean that everything that happens is God’s will, however.

Second, might it be better to interpret Piper’s six answers in terms of result rather than purpose? I acknowledge that the coronavirus can be the occasion for Christians to grow in Christ, manifesting as works of evangelism and compassionate service. I do not necessarily think, however, that we can confidently say that these are the reasons why God willed the coronavirus to happen.

Third, has Piper missed other lines of inquiry from Scripture? I would simply point out the way multiple ways the spread of COVID-19 has been exacerbated by bad policy decisions at all levels of government, and that the brunt of the disease has been felt by the elderly, the racial and ethnic minority, and the poor. Might thinking, feeling, and acting Christianly also entail engaging with these systemic issues?

Book Reviewed
John Piper, Coronavirus and Christ (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2020).

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

Weep with Me | Book Review


On June 4, North Central University hosted the funeral for George Floyd. NCU is an Assemblies of God school in Minneapolis, Minnesota. In the days that followed the funeral, my Facebook timeline was filled with Christian folk weighing in on whether this was a good idea. The vast majority thought it was, but a vocal few — all but one of them white — were angry about aspects of the school’s action.

While perusing the back-and-forth on Facebook, I received an out-of-the-blue call from a minister friend in the Church of God in Christ. COGIC is a historically black church and the nation’s largest Pentecostal denomination. My friend expressed incredible joy at NCU’s action, and he shared with me that other COGIC leaders also were happy at this unexpected action on NCU’s part.

The difference between the angry comments I read on Facebook and the joy in my friend’s phone call — anger and joy about the same event! — was (and is) jarring. Scripture enjoins believers, “Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn” (Romans 12:15). And yet, on June 4, the emotions of Christians I personally observed were out of sync.

In Weep with Me, Mark Vroegop shows “how lament opens a door for racial reconciliation.” A lament is “a prayer in pain that leads to trust.” It is a common form of prayer in the Bible, especially in the Psalms and Lamentations. It usually contains four elements: 1) turning to God, 2) complaining about one’s situation, 3) asking for relief, and 4) trusting in God for deliverance. Vroegop’s previous book, Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy, discusses these four elements in greater detail.

Lament is largely absent from white Christian spirituality in America. It is the native tongue of black Christian spirituality, however, the essence of African American spirituals. “These songs of sorrow expressed the emotional trauma of slavery and segregation,” Vroegop writes. “They protested exile created by the sins of partiality and abuse.” Ironically, when white American Christians look for mournful songs to use in Good Friday services, for example, they often turn to spirituals such as “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?”

So, how does lament open a door for racial reconciliation? To articulate the answer, Vroegop sketches out a path to reconciliation that consists of five movements.

First, love. “The church should be involved in racial reconciliation because of what we believe,” namely, that “Christ is all, and in all” (Colossians 3:11, ESV).

Second, listen. “Too often the tone of the conversation [about racial reconciliation] is marked by closed minds, hasty words, and angry attitudes.” Progress requires “a posture of listening.”

Third, lament. More on this in a moment, but for now, just keep in mind that lament “supplies a biblical voice that allows us to talk to God and one another about the pain we feel and see.”

Fourth, learn. “Our cultural backgrounds, understandings of history, and experiences create assumptions and blind spots. If we take the posture of learning from one another, we create a safe environment for asking questions and working through disagreements.”

Fifth, leverage. “The key is to understand that racial reconciliation requires action,” Vroegop concludes. “Love, listening, lamenting, and learning are designed to lead us here.”

So, again, how does lament open a door for racial reconciliation? It does so differently depending on whether a Christian belongs to his or her nation’s majority or one of its many minorities. In Part 2, Vroegop addresses America’s white majority; in Part 3, its black minority. (Though Vroegop draws on the history of America’s white-black divide, what he says could apply to white relations with other racial and ethnic minorities too.)

For majority Christians, lament engenders empathy, defined as “the ability or willingness to understand and care.” Empathy is the emotion behind Romans 12:15, which I quoted earlier, the ability to rejoice with or mourn with another. The incident I opened this review with is thus a failure of empathy. By contrast, “Weeping with those who weep emulates the heart of Jesus. It builds a bridge of grace over the chasm of division and injustice. It provides comfort to those who are hurting.”

Lament also offers majority Christians the language with which to speak up. “When it comes to racial injustice, the historical silence of most Christians has been deafening.” Lament both “acknowledges the brokenness of the world” and “refuses to remain silent.” A lament, merely by acknowledging that something is grievously wrong, breaks “the stronghold of the status quo.”

Finally, lament offers majority Christians the language of repentance and remorse. “Repentance is the change of mind, heart, and will that involves confession of specific sin and a change in our affections,” Vroegop writes. “Remorse is the heartfelt response when the weight of sin is understood.” We repent of our own sins. We express remorse for the sins of history that have shaped our present.

For minority Christians, lament offers the language of protest, triumph and faith. “Lament is an act of protest as the lamenter is allowed to express indignation and even outrage about the experience of suffering,” writes Soong-Chan Rah. In the Bible, such complaints were often found on the lips of exiles. “By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept” (Psalm 137:1, ESV). The Bible licenses the negative emotions associated with unjust suffering.

And yet, lament also gives minority Christians a language of triumph, as they acknowledge God’s power to redeem them out of their pain. Using Psalm 94, Vroegop draws three lessons about the power of lament. First, lament “validates the concern with injustice.” Second, it “shows us an appeal made not only because of personal wrongs but also because the divinely given system of justice was not working. And third, it “helps us see what to do with our frustrations and deep concern,” namely, turning to God and foreswearing vengeance.

Finally, lament gives minority Christians a language of hope about four things in particular: “God will help you,” “hardship can be transformative,” “people can change,” and “God will make it right.” Black Christians’ experience of suffering has often give them reservoirs of hope unavailable to those who live in comparative ease.

Weep with Me doesn’t claim to be the be-all, end-all of racial reconciliation. Much more has to be done than simply lamenting the current state of race relations in America, even among American Christians. And yet, the more I ponder the disparate responses to George Floyd’s funeral I mentioned at the top of this review, the more I wonder whether lament is a crucial missing step in contemporary reconciliation efforts.

Perhaps black and white Christians in America cannot move in step until our hearts are in sync, mourning together … and rejoicing too.

Book Reviewed
Mark Vroegop, Weep with Me: How Lament Opens a Door for Racial Reconciliation (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 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.

Farnsworth’s Classical English Style | Book Review


If you write for a living, or if, like me, you edit, or even if you simply like to pop the hood of English to see how the language works, you ought to read Farnsworth’s Classical English Style. It identifies “principles of style that are powerful and enduring,” illustrating them with quotations from masters of English prose such as the King James Bible, Shakespeare, Abraham Lincoln, and Winston Churchill.

The book’s central insight is that “rhetorical power can be created by various sorts of oppositions—by the relationship, usually one of friction or contrast, between two things. The two things might be plain and fancy words, long and short sentences, hard and soft syllables, high or rich substance and low or simple style (or vice versa), the concrete and the abstract, the passive and the active, the dignified and the coarse, detachment from the audience and engagement with it.”

The book’s first three chapters focus on style questions that arise from the fact that contemporary English grows mostly from Anglo-Saxon and Latinate roots. Consequently, when choosing words, an author can harvest concrete, often one-beat Saxon words, or abstract, often polysyllabic Latinate words: for example, light (Saxon) or illumination (Latinate). One rule of thumb is to prefer the short, concrete Saxon words.

Ward Farnsworth argues, however, that the best English prose brings Saxon and Latinate words together fruitfully. (Sometimes, he points out, the issue isn’t etymology so much as it is word length, with Saxon standing in for short words and Latinate for long ones.) You can begin a sentence with Latinate words and end it with Saxon ones: “the Saxon finish.” Or You can do the opposite, “the Latinate finish.” For an example of the Saxon finish, consider this quote from Churchill: “You may take the most gallant sailor, the most intrepid airman, or the most audacious soldier, put them at a table together—what do you get? The sum of their fears.”

Successive chapters address metonymy, hyperbole, sentence length and structure, the passive voice, anacoluthon and related devices, and rhetorical announcements and instructions. The final two chapters address cadence, that is, “variation between stressed and unstressed syllables.” We typically think of cadence in terms of poetic meter: iambs, trochees, anapests, dactyls, and so on. Good prose has poetic moments, however, when the cadence of the words makes the sentence sharp and memorable. Consider this anapestic finish—an anapest consists of “three stressed syllables with two unstressed ones between each of them”—from 2 Corinthians 2:15 (KJV): “To the one we are the savour of death unto death; and to the other the savour of life unto life” (the bold letters are stressed syllables).

(Poetry friends: Both Farnsworth and I know that an anapest is two unstressed syllables followed by a stressed one, so just go with his novel definition of anapestic finish.)

Readers should take note that this is now a how-to book. It identifies stylistic traits and illustrates them copiously. Indeed, the illustrations of good English prose are a selling point for the book. However, Farnsworth does not offer a Step 1, Step 2, Step 3 approach to writing good prose. He simply identifies the principle, illustrates it, and leaves the would-be writer to his or her own devices. And that’s a good thing! Good writing comes from reading good writing and working hard on your own writing to make it good. That kind of writing can’t be prepackaged or bought. It must be earned.

Farnsworth’s Classical English Style is the third volume in a trilogy. After reading it, I look forward to savoring its predecessors: Farnsworth’s Classical English Rhetoric and Farnworth’s Classical English Metaphor.

Book Reviewed
Ward Farnsworth, Farnsworth’s Classical English Style (Boston: David R. Godine, 2020).

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

Outrage Culture vs. Gentle Jesus | Influence Podcast


In late 2014, Slate magazine published a series of articles under the title, “The Year of Outrage.” If anything, the outrage in America has only worsened since then. Even Christians have jumped onto the outrage train. The results haven’t been pretty, for either society generally or churches specifically.

What would Jesus do? And how should Christians follow His example? Scott Sauls thinks gentleness is the answer to both questions: “Jesus has been gentle toward us,” he writes, “so we have good reason to become gentle toward others, including those who treat us like enemies.”

In this episode of the Influence Podcast, I’m talking to Pastor Sauls about how Jesus’ gentleness is the antithesis of outrage culture. I’m George P. Wood, executive editor of Influence magazine and your host. Scott Sauls is senior pastor of Christ Presbyterian Church in Nashville, Tennessee, and author of A Gentle Answer: Our “Secret Weapon” in an Age of Us Against Them, published in June by Thomas Nelson.

A Better Way of Doing Apologetics | Influence Podcast


In 1 Peter 3:15, the apostle wrote: “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.” The Greek word the NIV translates as “answer” is apología, from which we get the word apologetics. Apologetics is that branch of Christian theology which offers reasonable answers to skeptical questions about the faith.

Apologetics is a necessary component of evangelism and discipleship, especially in an America that is becoming increasingly post-Christian. But apologetics is not always done well. Too often, it is perceived as a logic-chopping exercise  in answering abstract questions no one is asking by faith-defenders who are more concerned with winning arguments than people.

In this episode of the Influence Podcast, I’m exploring a better way of doing apologetics with Joshua Chatraw. I’m George P. Wood, executive editor of Influence magazine and your host.

Dr. Chatraw is executive director of the Center for Public Christianity at Holy Trinity Anglican Church in Raleigh, North Carolina, and author of numerous books on apologetics, including Apologetics at the Cross, The History of Apologetics, and most recently, Telling a Better Story. All these books are published by Zondervan.

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

P.P.S. I reviewed Chatraw’s book here: https://amzn.to/32ui5OK. If you like my review, please click “Helpful” on my review page.

Telling a Better Story | Book Review


In an increasingly post-Christian America, apologetics — the defense of the Christian faith — is a necessary component of evangelism and discipleship. Christians need to “be prepared to give an answer [Greek, apología] to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have” (1 Peter 3:15). How they can do so well is the subject of Joshua D. Chatraw’s excellent new book, Telling a Better Story.

Apologetics has a bad rap in some quarters. Chatraw tells the story of a student at a Christian university who asked him, “What is your best argument for Christianity?”

When Chatraw answered, “It depends on who I’m talking to and what the situation is,” the student seemed unimpressed.

He was looking for a “knockout punch,” a “winner take all” argument. Here’s a pro tip: Those arguments are vanishingly rare, and anyway, what we want to win is a person, not a debate.

And then apologetics seems far removed from the concerns of everyday life. Chatraw describes the kind of apologetics in which many Bible-believing Christians were trained as “Building Block Apologetics.” The foundation of the pyramid is “universal logic,” rules of thinking that validate a “general theism,” on top of which is “historical evidence” for the Bible. The capstone is “the message of the gospel.” The problem with this kind of apologetics, which moves from the abstract to the concrete, is not that it’s false but that it’s irrelevant to most people. It answers questions they’re not asking and leaves little room for genuine conversation.

Rather than a “knockout punch” or a “rigid system,” Chatraw offers a “way” of doing apologetics that he calls “Inside Out Apologetics.” He explains, “The goal is for both sides to be willing to ‘try on the other story’ and see how it ‘fits’ rationally, psychologically, and experientially.” For the Christian, this involves internalizing certain questions and applying them prudently in conversations:

Inside:

  • What can I affirm [in the other’s story], and what will I need to challenge?
  • Where does this story lead, and is it internally consistent and livable?

Outside:

  • Where do competing views borrow from the Christian story?
  • How does the Christian narrative better address our experiences, observations, and history?

Chatraw cites Paul’s Areopagus speech as an example of an inside-out approach (Acts 17:22–31). Inside: “[Paul] quotes pagan sources and affirms where Athenian thinking is correct,” but he also “challenges their culture by using one of their own beliefs to demonstrate that God must be independent from his creation.” Outside: Paul invites the Athenians to view life through a Christ-centered lens: God “has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17:31).

If Acts 17:32 is any guide, inside-out conversations do not guarantee conversions, either for Paul or for us. They do lead to more productive conversations with those willing to invest the time, however. And that’s what budding Christian apologists should aim for.

The bulk of Telling a Better Story demonstrates how an inside-out approach might work in conversations about five common cultural assumptions in post-Christian America:

  1. I don’t need God or religion.
  2. You have to be true to yourself.
  3. The ultimate goal of life is to be happy.
  4. It’s okay to be spiritual, but not to say that your religion is the only way, or attempt to bring it into the public square.
  5. We’ve progressed beyond faith and myths to reason and science.

I don’t know about you, but I see variations on these assumptions every day in my social media feed. These are the questions people are asking, and therefore the questions Christians need to be prepared to discuss.

Of course, once you commit to having a conversation with someone who does not share your Christian faith, you’re committing to hearing their pushback on that faith. Chatraw rounds out his book with three common objections to Christianity: it’s oppressive, unloving, and untrue. He concedes— rightly, in my opinion — that our skeptical friends sometimes have a point. Christians have not always acted Christianly: liberatingly, lovingly, rationally. There are nonetheless reasons to believe, and to act on the belief, that the gospel is true.

Telling a Better Story concludes with a quote from Soren Kierkegaard: “Christ is the truth in the sense that to be the truth is the only true explanation of what truth is.” In post-Christian America, it is important that we Christians “speak the truth” as we answer the questions of our unbelieving neighbors. More importantly, however, we need to “embody the truth.” This, as Chatraw puts it, is the “greater apologetic.”

Book Reviewed
Joshua D. Chatraw, Telling a Better Story: How to Talk About God in a Skeptical Age (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.

Roadmap to Reconciliation 2.0 | Book Review


The Bible begins with a family and ends with a multitude. Its narrative arc thus includes unity and diversity. Because of creation, all who bear the image of God are also children of Adam and Eve. Because of the new creation, the “great multitude” gathered before God’s throne in adoration encompasses “every nation, tribe, people and language” (Revelation 7:9).

We do not live at either the beginning or end of the biblical story, however. We live in the middle, in a world divided by sin from God and from one another. The reason Jesus Christ entered the world was to overcome both divisions.

The apostle Paul makes this clear in Ephesians 2:15–16, where he writes: “[Christ’s] purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility.” The Cross, in other words, is the place where Christ reconciles us both to God and to one another.

The Church’s mission, following in Christ’s steps, is to advance the work of this twofold reconciliation in both word (the gospel we proclaim) and deed (the gospel we practice). In my opinion, American Christians are better at the former than the latter. We have well-developed systems of evangelism but underdeveloped systems of racial reconciliation.

Brenda Salter McNeil’s Roadmap to Reconciliation 2.0 helps rectify that problem by outlining how Christians can pursue racial reconciliation personally, in their churches, and in their communities.

She defines racial reconciliation as “an ongoing spiritual process involving forgiveness, repentance and justice that restores broken relationships and systems to reflect God’s original intention for all creation to flourish.”

She then outlines “five primary landmarks as signs that will produce lasting personal and cultural change in people and groups” committed to such reconciliation:

  1. catalytic events: “painful but necessary experiences that happen to individuals and organizations that serve to jump-start the reconciliation process”;
  2. realization: “a state of awareness that requires a response because it literally changes everything we thought we understood about an experience”;
  3. identification: “where we begin to identify with and relate to other people who are experiencing the same thing”;
  4. preparation: where we move “from the personal and relational to the structural and the transformational, and the gap between the two is huge”; and
  5. activation: where we begin “to repair broken systems together.”

Throughout the book, Salter McNeil roots her counsel in biblical teaching, insights from social science, historical analysis, and long personal experience doing the work of racial reconciliation. The result is theologically rich, thought-provoking and eminently practical.

Salter McNeil argues that efforts at racial reconciliation usually break down in the preparation phase because personal relationships begin to impinge upon powerful structures. “Folks typically tend to gravitate to the first half of the model, engaging in the realization and identification phases with urgency and focus,” she writes.

Building personal relationships across lines of race and ethnicity is comparatively easy. Changing powerful structures is really hard. In the end, though, she writes, “relational connections cannot be sustained without structural intentionality.”

America is at an inflection point, and its churches have been given a kairos moment. The deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, among others, have reopened the wounds of our nation’s longest injury, and the Church has a gospel capable of healing it through a call to repentance, the offer of forgiveness, and a commitment to justice.

At this moment, whether the nation hears that gospel may very well turn on whether it sees Christians putting racial reconciliation into practice first.

 

Book Reviewed
Brenda Salter McNeil, Roadmap to Reconciliation 2.0: Moving Communities into Unity, Wholeness and Justice (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2020).

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

P.P.S. This review appears in the July-August 2020 issue of Influence magazine and is cross-posted here by permission.

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