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).

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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.

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.

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