On Reading Well | Book Review


For as long as I can remember, I have loved to read. My father was a pastor and my mother was a teacher, so there were always books around the house — preeminently the Bible, but also works of fiction and nonfiction. I never caught flak for reading as such, but my mom would sometimes look askance at me when I told her I was reading fiction.

Fiction is weird. Pablo Picasso wrote, “We all know that Art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize truth.” Leland Ryken, my college English professor, said the same thing about fiction particularly. It is “the lie that tells the truth.” That’s what makes fiction weird. It describes the human condition without narrating a historical occurrence.

Some Christians trip over this paradox. I vividly remember a conversation with an older minister who insisted that Jesus’ parables weren’t made-up stories. They actually happened. If they were made up, he reasoned, then Jesus lied. Since Jesus didn’t lie, His parables took place in real life. The minister simply couldn’t see how a made-up story could tell the truth.

Other Christians trip over fiction’s literary form. They are so concerned for fiction to tell “The Truth” that they write and/or read novels that are thinly veiled Sunday school lessons. I think this is why so much “Christian fiction” is so badly reviewed. Literary art gets sacrificed on the altar of making a point.

On Reading Wellby Karen Swallow Prior avoids both of these errors. It shows how the best fiction uses literary art to display virtue or its opposite. That’s not all fiction does, of course. It delights, intrigues, inspires, enrages, entertains, and a thousand other things, too. But good fiction preaches without being preachy. It moralizes without becoming moralistic. As Prior writes:

“Literature embodies virtue, first, by offering images of virtue in action and, second, by offering the reader vicarious practice in exercising virtue, which is not the same as actual practice, of course, but is nonetheless a practice by which habits of mind, ways of thinking and perceiving, accrue.”

After an Introduction that explores the connection between literature and virtue, Prior divides her book into three parts grouped around a particular set of virtues, with each chapter pairing a particular virtue with a particular story.

Part One focuses on the cardinal virtues: prudence, temperance, justice and courage. The word cardinalderives from the Latin word for hinge. According to both classical philosophers and early Christian theologians, all other virtues pivot around these four. That’s why they’re cardinal. Prior explores these virtues through careful readings of The History of Tom Jones, a Foundingby Henry Fielding (prudence); The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (temperance); A Tale of Two Citiesby Charles Dickens (justice): and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain (courage).

Part Two examines the theological virtues: faith, hope and love. “In contrast to the other virtues,” Prior writes, “these virtues can be attained only when granted to us by God through his supernatural grace.” That is why they’re theological. The books Prior studies in these chapters are Silenceby Shusaku Endo (faith), The Roadby Cormac McCarthy (hope), and The Death of Ivan Ilychby Leo Tolstoy (love). For me, the chapters on faith and hope were the most challenging in the book, given the apostasy that lies at the heart of Endo’s tale and the hopelessness of McCarthy’s. Most challenging, but also most rewarding.

Finally, Part Three explores the heavenly virtues, which are the counterparts to the seven deadly sins. They are charity, temperance, chastity, diligence, patience, kindness and humility. Since Swallow discussed charity and temperance in preceding parts of the book, she skips them here, focusing on the last five. The works she discusses are Ethan Fromeby Edith Wharton (chastity); Pilgrim’s Progressby John Bunyan (diligence); Persuasionby Jane Austen; “The Tenth of December” by George Saunders; and two short stories by Flannery O’Connor, “Revelation” and “Everything That Rises Must Converge.”

I have nothing but praise for this book. It exemplifies how to read well, both in the sense of reading closely and of reading through the lens of moral analysis. Perhaps the highest praise I can give the book is that when I turned its last page, I wanted to read (or re-read) the works of fiction it studied.

The Puritan divine Richard Baxter wrote, “Good books are a very great mercy to the world.” They are, and Karen Swallow Prior’s book shows why. Fiction, at least the best of it, offers us a window onto life and into ourselves that can alter our perceptions and lead to metanoia, a change of mind, being and action. Given that we are not as virtuous as we could be, let alone as we should be, that change is necessary. And if “the lie that tells the truth” aids us in making that change, then let us read it well.

Book Reviewed
Karen Swallow Prior, On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life Through Great Brooks(Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2018).

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

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

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St. Athanasius On the Incarnation | Book Review


There are three good reasons to read this edition of Athanasius’On the Incarnation.

First, the Introduction by C. S. Lewis is worth the price of the book. “There is a strange idea abroad that in every subject the ancient books should be read only by professionals,” he writes, “and that the amateur should content himself with the modern books.” He goes on to give reasons why that “strange idea” is a mistake, as well as to make the case for the importance of reading old books. “The only palliative [to modern prejudices] is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books.” And, of course, he praises the translation itself: “I do not think the reader will find here any of that sawdusty quality which is so common in modern renderings from the ancient languages.”

The second reason to read this edition of On the Incarnationis the argument Athanasius makes. Athanasius is the bishop of Alexandria who led the fight for Nicene Christianity against the Arian heresy throughout the middle of the fourth century. It is from that fight he earned the moniker Athanasius contra mundum, “Athanasius against the world.” But On the Incarnationwas written prior to Nicea. It summarizes orthodox Christian teaching regarding the person and work of Christ. It breaks no ground theologically, which is why it is so valuable. It lays out clearly and compellingly what Christians continue to believe about the nature and purpose of Christ’s Incarnation. The only false notes I detected in the overall argument were when Athanasius offered a “refutation” of the Jews (Chapter VI) and Gentile polytheists (Chapters VII and VIII). Especially with regard to Jews, Athanasius’ refutation seemed directed at a Christian caricature of Jews rather than at fourth-century Jews themselves. And his refutation of Gentile polytheism in Chapter VIII, wherein he cited the decline of paganism and the rise of orthodoxy as proof of the latter, was too triumphalistic. Today, Alexandria is a majority-Muslim city. That doesn’t prove the truth of Islam.

The third reason to read this edition is its inclusion of the Appendix, “The Letter of St. Athanasius to Marcellinus on the Interpretation of the Psalms.” I read the Psalms daily, and I resonated with nearly every word Athanasius offered in praise of routine Psalm-reading. He wrote: “Son, all the books of Scripture, both the Old Testament and the New, are inspired by God and useful for instruction, as the Apostle says; but to those who really study it the Psalter yields especial treasure.” Yes, it does.

So, five stars for this edition of On the Incarnation.

Book Reviewed
St. Athanasius On the Incarnation: The Treatise De Incarnatione Verbi Dei, trans. and ed. by a Religious of C.S.M.V, with an Introduction by C. S. Lewis(Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1993).

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

P.P.S. The edition I reviewed is no longer in print. St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press newer editionof On the Incarnationincludes Lewis’ Introduction with a new translation of the work by John Behr. It does not include Athanasius’ letter to Marcellinus. It is also available with the original Greek textand new translation on facing pages.

Why Missions Needs Missionaries | Influence Podcast


This past summer, thousands of Assemblies of God churchgoers went on short-term missions trips. These trips often do much good. They certainly change the people who go on them for the better. But is it a good idea to shift a church’s missions strategy to short-term missions?

Similarly, churches are increasingly supporting “social justice” causes such as anti-human trafficking initiatives and water well drilling as an important part of missions. Granted, these are great causes, but are they missions?

In today’s episode of the Influence Podcast, I talk with with Doug Clay and Greg Mundis about what missions is and why missions need long-term missionaries. Doug Clay is general superintendent of the Assemblies of God (USA), and Greg Mundis is executive director of Assemblies of God World Missions.

Five Tensions Churches Must Manage to Successfully Engage Millennials | Influence Podcast


America is in the midst of a generational sea change. Baby Boomers are no longer the nation’s largest generational cohort. Instead, Millennials are.

Unfortunately, Millennials are the least religious generational cohort in our nation’s history. If the Church wants to reach Millennials, it cannot rely on strategies that worked with Boomers. The generations are simply too different.

In today’s episode, Influencemagazine executive editor George P. Wood talks to Geoff Surratt about five tensions churches must manage to successfully engage Millennials.

Together with his wife, Sherry, Geoff is the founder of Ministry Together, which “partners with “ministry leaders for relational health, organizational growth and Kingdom impact.” He is also author of the free e-book, The Church Will Thrive.

The Other Woman | Book Review


When Daniel Silva publishes a new Gabriel Allon novel, I read it as quickly as I can. I get up early to read it, catch a few pages during breaks throughout the day, and stay up late until it’s finished. Some people binge-watch their favorite shows on Netflix. I binge-read spy books.

And so it was with The Other Woman, the latest installment in Silva’s long-running series. In it, Gabriel Allon, chief of Israel’s Mossad, discovers there’s a mole near the top of a Western intelligence agency. Discovering who the mole is and what agency has been compromised before any more damage can be done is the engine that drives the plot forward.

As with all murder and suspense books, my chief criterion of a well-told tale is whether it keeps me turning pages. If a suspense book especially doesn’t grab my attention and force me to keep reading because I absolutely must know what happens next, then it’s not a very good suspense book. By that criterion, The Other Womanis a success.

The book also kept my attention because the plot hinges on Cold War history. I can’t go into detail without spoiling things, so I’ll just say that James Jesus Angleton’s description of counterintelligence as “a wilderness of mirrors” is an apt description of The Other Woman’s plot. Angleton was obsessed that Russia had a mole in the CIA, an obsession grounded in the all-to-real treachery of Kim Philby and the other members of the infamous Cambridge Five, but his obsession also tore relations between Western intelligence agencies apart. That kind of obsession is in play here too.

One of the downsides of page-turners is that you often only see the plot’s weaknesses in hindsight. That was the case here too. In the moment, I thought the Cold War-related plot (again, no details because…spoilers!) worked well. But on reflection, I started to think it was highly implausible. Once you’ve read the book, you’ll know what I’m talking about, and you can draw your own conclusions.

Even with this caveat, The Other Womanis an entertaining read, a trip down Cold War Memory Lane, and a reminder that in the real world, the New Boss of Russia is the same as the Old Boss, and neither is the good guy.

Book Reviewed
Daniel Silva, The Other Woman (New York: HarperCollins, 2018).

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

Servant Leadership in Action | Book Review


Servant leadership is a term coined by Robert Greenleaf to describe leadership concerned with people development, not just profit maximization. Servant Leadership in Action presents state-of-the-art thinking about the concept. Editors Ken Blanchard and Renee Broadwell curate 42 short essays developing various aspects of servant leadership. Contributors include business leaders, organizational consultants, and Christian ministers. The editors acknowledge Jesus Christ as the fundamental influence on servant leadership — as do many of the essays’ authors — but they write: “a major goal of this book is to prove that servant leadership has application in both secular andspiritual leadership in every kind of organization.”

Book Reviewed
Ken Blanchard and Renee Broadwell, eds., Servant Leadership in Action: How You Can Achieve Great Relationships and Results (Oakland, CA: Berrett-Koehler, 2018).

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

A Debt of Death | Book Review


A Debt of Death begins with Adam Lapid looking at his friend’s body in a Tel Aviv gutter. A friend who helped him survive Auschwitz. A friend whom he worries he might’ve gotten killed.

This is the fourth installment in Jonathan Dunsky’s series featuring Israeli private investigator Adam Lapid. Almost no one escapes suspicion in this hardboiled tale mixing love, obligation, hope, despair, counterfeiting, the black market, and murder. And just when you think Lapid has collared the perpetrator, he reveals a new layer to the mystery.

To my mind, this is the best of the Adam Lapid mysteries published so far, though all have been page-turners, which is my basic rule in reviewing fiction. It fully merits a five-star review. I only hope Jonathan Dunsky has more stories in the works. Having read through the first four books in the last two weeks, I’m already jonesing for another.

Book Reviewed
Jonathan Dunsky, A Debt of Death: An Adam Lapid Mystery (Charlotte, NC: CreateSpace, 2017).

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