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 Multiethnic Church as a Solution to Racism | Influence Podcast


The death of George Floyd has sparked a nationwide conversation about racism. As our fellow citizens talk about how to reform public policy, it’s also important for the Church to look inward and see how we can better embody the truth of Galatians 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

In this episode of the Influence Podcast, I’m talking to Mark DeYmaz about how the multiethnic church offers a solution to the problem of racism. I’m George P. Wood, executive editor of Influence magazine and your host.

One of the architects of the contemporary multiethnic church movement, Mark DeYmaz is the cofounder, CEO, and president of Mosaix, “a relational network of pastors and planters, denominational and network leaders, educators, authors, and researchers alike, that exists to establish healthy multiethnic and economically diverse churches for the sake of the gospel throughout North America and beyond.” This October, Fortress Press will release a new version of his classic book, Building a Healthy Multi-Ethnic Church.

This episode of the Influence Podcast is brought to you by My Healthy Church, distributors of Radiant Life Sunday School curriculum.

As a leader, it can be frustrating when you don’t have the tools your teachers need to engage students in the Bible. Radiant Life Sunday School curriculum is designed to be engaging and easy to use for any teacher, so that leaders can create a thriving ministry that changes lives. Radiant Life is also available in Spanish.

Visit RadiantLifeCurriculum.com to learn more.

Woe to the Scribes and Pharisees | Book Review


Woe to the Scribes and Pharisees is the third installment in Daniel Taylor’s series of mysteries featuring Jon Mote, erstwhile Ph.D. student and special-needs adult caregiver, now book editor for Luxor House, a subsidiary of Continental Media, itself a small part of World Wide Holdings International, which in is run by an even larger corporation known to insiders as Imperial Interests.

The book begins and ends at a retreat center in northern Minnesota as fall is changing to winter. The central plotline takes place on a single day and is written in the voice of Jon Mote. Readers get Mote’s perspective on events as they unfold, but the unfolding involves a lot of flashing back to earlier events.

Those gathered at the retreat center are part of a Bible translation committee charged with producing the New World Standard Bible, the primary need for which seems to be making its publisher lots of money. In order to expedite the translation process, the publisher buys the 70s-era paraphrase of the Bible produced by Dr. Jerry DeAngelo (“Dr. Jerry”), a retired televangelist who’s glad to be back in the game. His dutiful wife, Cate, sits in on all meetings, saying little but knitting a lot.

Members of the committee are a diverse group, including Dr. Bart Sprung (“the most publicly known progressive figure”); Dr. Lilith Weekly (“an established feminist scholar”); Dr. Martin Shabazz Douglas (“a rising young black scholar”); Dr. Adam Corinth (“an expert on the historical books of the Old Testament”); and Dr. Peter Stone (a fundamentalist theologian “teaching at a Baptist university in Virginia”). If disagreement about a choice of translation arises, committee members vote, and ties are broken by Robert Green, an agnostic Jew from New York who represents the publisher’s financial interests and enforces its deadlines.

If you know anything about Bible translation committees, you know that this committee would never exist in real life. It’s too ideologically and ecclesially diverse. And with the exception of Adam Corinth, none of the members is a biblical scholar per se.

That niggling detail should be overlooked, however, because Daniel Taylor isn’t satirizing Bible translation as much as using Bible translation to satirize the sorry state of Christianity in America, of the academic study of religion, and of religious publishing. The satire works well, hilariously so at points. Bart Sprung seems like a mashup of Bart Ehrman and John Shelby Spong. Two other characters, Robby Clapper and Orlanda, are stand-ins for Rob Bell and Oprah. Even the Peter Stone’s redundant name—Peter derives from the Greek word for rock—is a witty caricature of fundamentalist immovability.

Moreover, if you like series novels, as I do, Woe to the Scribes and Pharisees continues the story of Jon Mote as he heals from the personal traumas related in Death Comes for the Deconstructionist and Do We Not Bleed?, which I reviewed here and here. He is reconciling with his ex-wife Zillah and continues to care for his older sister Judy, who has Down Syndrome. All of that makes for a rich, textured literary universe that’s enjoyable to explore.

As a mystery, however, Woe to the Scribes and Pharisees was only so-so, in my opinion. Several characters die in the novel, starting with Adam Corinth, and there are hints at a suspect, but the clue that solves the mystery arrives too abruptly when no one is looking for it. It is literally just found. As a mystery novel reader, that aspect of the novel was something of a letdown.

I can’t help but wonder, though, whether this observation is beside the point. The title of the book is Woe to the Scribes and Pharisees, which alludes to Jesus’ denunciation of the same in Matthew 23 and Luke 11. Taylor doesn’t cite any verses from those chapters in the book’s epigraph, however, instead quoting Deuteronomy 4:2 and Mark 7:13. Regardless, given the allusion and the quotation, it seems clear to me that Taylor has authorities in both academe and the church in mind throughout this book. They are the ones “making the word of God of none effect through you tradition” (Mark 7:13 KJV).

In other words, this book ultimately isn’t a mystery about violent murder but about misusing the Bible. The way some people use the Bible kills. If so, then I’d hazard the guess that Dr. Martin Shabazz Douglas is the real hero of the story.

If that doesn’t make sense to you now, read the book, and it will.

Book Reviewed
Daniel Taylor, Woe to the Scribes and Pharisees: A Jon Mote Mystery (Eugene, OR: Slant, 2020).

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

Open and Unafraid | Book Review


Life is complicated, so we need to learn to pray complicatedly. The Book of Psalms helps us do that because it touches on all the conditions of life — high, low and in-between. As Denise Dombkowski Hopkins writes, “A journey through the Psalms is a journey of the life of faith.”

David O. Taylor’s Open and Unafraid is a guidebook for that journey. Neither an introduction to nor a commentary on the Psalter, it focuses on “the formative power of the psalms, for both individual and communities.” It does this by exploring many of Psalms’ recurring themes.

The first, honesty, sets the tone for those that follow. “What the psalms offer us is a powerful aid to un-hide,” Taylor writes: “to stand honestly before God without fear, to face one another vulnerably without shame, and to encounter life in the world without any of the secrets that would demean and distort our humanity.”

Psalms’ honesty shows up in its prayers about sadness, anger and joy. When the psalmists imprecate their enemies and demand justice, when they worry about death and hope for life, when they consider the nations or reflect on Creation, they model how we can do the same.

Most importantly, when read through the eyes of Christian faith, Psalms points us to Jesus. “The psalms teach us how to pray as Jesus himself prayed,” Taylor explains. But also, “to pray with Jesus in the psalms is to pray with the one who embodies our prayers.” Psalms is both Jesus’ prayer book, we might say, and a prayer book about Jesus.

For centuries, the Church recognized this and used the Psalter as its own prayer book. Many Christian traditions continue to do so. Unfortunately, American evangelicals and Pentecostals have not adopted this practice, perhaps due to concerns about rote prayers, questions about Christian use of the Old Testament, or worries that some laments and all imprecations are inappropriate on believers’ lips.

Open and Unafraid shows both why such concerns are misplaced and how Christians can make use of the Psalter today. Indeed, according to the New Testament, praying the Psalms is a Pentecostal activity. Ephesians 5:18–19 tells us to “be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit.”

May the Spirit who inspired Psalms inspire us to pray its prayers!

Book Reviewed
David O. Taylor, Open and Unafraid: The Psalms as a Guide to Life (Nashville, TN: Nelson Books, 2020).

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

P.P.S. This short review appears in the May-June 2020 issue of Influence magazine and is posted here with permission.

Analog Church | Book Review


Jay Y. Kim’s Analog Church had the misfortune of hitting bookstores at the precise moment American churches were rushing to go digital due to COVID-19-related shelter-at-home orders in many places across the nation.

Bad timing aside, the book’s message is timely. “People are hungry for human experiences,” Kim writes, “and the church is perfectly positioned to offer exactly that.” The longer people shelter at home, the more that hunger will grow, and the greater the Church’s opportunity will be.

But will churches be able to satisfy that hunger? Kim worries they won’t. (His worries long predate the current crisis.) The reason is not that churches use digital technology. Rather, it is that they often embrace digital values, which Kim enumerates:

  1. Speed. We have access to what we want when we want, as quickly as our fingers can type and scroll.
  2. Choices. We have access to an endless array of options when it comes to just about anything.
  3. Individualism. Everything, from online profiles to gadgets is endlessly customizable, allowing us to emphasize our preferences and personalities.

Kim acknowledges that digital technology has made “major contributions to the improvement of human experience.” Sheltered at home with my family, I can confirm that a speedy internet, multiple iPads, and an array of online entertainment choices vastly improved our experience of confinement. Additionally, digital technology made church services and small groups accessible to believers who couldn’t walk through their church doors.

And yet, those digital values also have a downside. In Kim’s words:

The speed of the digital age has made us impatient.
The choices of the digital age have made us shallow.
The individualism of the digital age has made us isolated.

Digital values are good if you’re talking about consuming things. If you’re talking about making disciples, however, impatience, shallowness and isolation are nonstarters. Consequently, Kim warns: “Leading our churches headlong into digital spaces in hopes of creating an easy-to-consume Christian product severely diminishes our ability to meaningfully impact the culture around us and invite them into more meaningful spaces.”

Because of this danger, Kim encourages churches to “lean into analog opportunities” in three areas: worship, community and Scripture. He captures the basic difference between digital and analog with this couplet: “Digital informs. Analog transforms.”

Both information and transformation are important, of course — the former as the means, the latter as an end. But, as opposed to analog, digital has the quality of seeing rather than being. (These are my words, not Kim’s.) Seeing pictures of Yosemite, for example, simply cannot capture the wonder of being there.

So how does this information-transformation distinction apply to worship, community and Scripture?

By worship, Kim means the public gatherings of Christians characterized by “songs and sermons,” two forms easy to represent via digital media. The danger of digital worship is that it takes place in your head, not your whole body. Seeing others sing or preach isn’t the same as being in the room where it happened. An observer isn’t a participant.

The being-there quality of analog applies even more to community. “Digital technologies are exceptional and efficient when it comes to the exchange of information,” Kim writes, “but they are abject failures when it comes to the exchange of presence.” We may speak of “online communities,” but that is a useful fiction. Communities must commune, not just communicate.

The gospel didn’t come to us as a movie played on the screen of heaven, after all. It came as Jesus Christ, God in the flesh, who gathered around himself a community called His “body.” Digital technology cannot do this. It cannot reproduce the embodied character of community.

Finally, Bible. Digital technology provides tremendous tools for Bible study. I use YouVersion’s search function all the time, for example. The problem is that a search-function approach to Scripture is reductive.

Consider that God did not inspire the Bible as an answer to a Google prompt, “What does the Bible say about ______?” Instead, over the course of 1,500 years, He inspired 66 books that tell a unified story: the gospel. Understanding that story requires reading slowly for “deep comprehension,” rather than swiftly searching for “self-help tidbits or small morsels of encouragement or inspiration for the day.” Unfortunately, this latter approach is how millions now “read” the Bible.

Kim concludes Analog Church by talking about Communion, which is so analog — “you can’t eat and drink together online” — that it is an antidote to digital values. Given the extraordinary circumstances of the current pandemic, some have experimented with “virtual communion” as a concession to short-term realities.

Pandemic aside, though, the long-term reality is that the Church is intrinsically analog. Facebook and FaceTime may supplement a church’s communication capabilities, especially in a crisis, but they cannot substitute for face-to-face experience. If we Christians fail to remember this, we fail to feed the very hunger our contemporaries so strongly feel.

Book Reviewed
Jay Y. Kim, Analog Church: Why We Need Real People, Places, and Things in the Digital Age (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2020).

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

P.P.S. This review appears in the May-June 2020 issue of Influence magazine.

When Someone You Love Is Gay | Influence Podcast


According to Pew Research Center, the percentage of Americans who say homosexuality should be approved by society grew from 46% in 1994 to 70% in 2017. Over the same period, the share who say it should be discouraged declined from 49% to 24%. Public attitudes toward same-sex marriage have followed a similar trajectory. Pew reports that in 2004, 60% of Americans opposed same-sex marriage, while 31% favored it. By 2019, those numbers had reversed, with 61% favoring it and 31% opposing it.

These data points create tensions for Christians who want to uphold the biblical view of sexual morality: fidelity within marriage, defined as the lifelong union of a man and a woman, and chastity outside of it. In this episode of the Influence Podcast, I’m talking with Joe Dallas about the most poignant tension: what to do when someone you love is gay.

I’m George P. Wood, executive editor of Influence magazine and your host. Joe Dallas is a Christian counselor and author of numerous books about a Christian view of sexuality, including When Homosexuality Hits Home: What to Do When a Loved One Says, “I’m Gay.” He serves on the Board of Directors for ReStory Ministries, whose mission is “resourcing local [Assemblies of God] churches to address homosexuality and gender identity.”

How to Read Proverbs for Preaching | Influence Podcast


When I went off to college, my mom concluded every letter she sent me by quoting Proverbs 3:5–6:

Trust in the Lord with all your heart
and lean not on your own understanding;
in all your ways submit to him,
and he will make your paths straight.

Those verses capture the essence of the Book of Proverbs. They teach us about God, our relationship to Him, and how we ought to live in a pithy, memorable way. Indeed, the whole book is filled with gems like this one. That probably explains why Proverbs is so popular with Christians.

And yet, anyone who has preached or taught from the book of Proverbs knows that it’s harder than it looks. This is especially true if you’re trying to organize an expository series on the book. In this episode of the Influence Podcast, I’m talking to Dr. Meghan Musy about how to read Proverbs for preaching. We’ll talk about both how to interpret individual proverbs as well as how to organize a sermon or series on the book.

I’m George P. Wood, executive editor of Influence Magazine and your host. Dr. Meghan Musy is an ordained Assemblies of God minister and assistant professor of Old Testament at Evangel University in Springfield, Missouri.

 

 

Who Is an Evangelical? | Book Review


The word evangelical comes down to us via Latin from the Greek word εὐαγγέλιον, meaning “good news.” In the Reformation Era, it described Lutherans and other Protestants who broke from the Roman Catholic Church, emphasizing the good news of justification by grace through faith. Beginning in the 18th century, however, it came to describe a particular movement within Anglophone, trans-Atlantic Protestantism, which Thomas S. Kidd calls “the religion of the born again.” He traces the history of that movement in his new book, Who Is an Evangelical?

Kidd is the James Vardaman Distinguished Professor of History at Baylor University and a scholar of the era of the American founding. He is author of numerous books, including The Great Awakening; biographies of Patrick Henry, George Whitefield, and Benjamin Franklin; and the forthcoming America’s Religious History. In Who Is an Evangelical? he aims to “introduce readers to evangelicals’ experiences, practices, and beliefs, and to examine the reasons for our crisis today.” More on that crisis in a moment.

Evangelicals, as Kidd defines the term, are “born-again Protestants who cherish the Bible as the Word of God and who emphasize a personal relationship with Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit.” These three markers — “conversion, Bible, and divine presence” — make evangelicalism a loosely defined movement rather than a tightly defined denomination or theological school. Understood this way, evangelicalism has always been international, multiethnic, and transdenominational.

(Side note: I am an ordained Assemblies of God minister and executive editor of the denomination’s Influence magazine. The AG is a classical Pentecostal denomination whose distinctive doctrine is baptism in the Holy Spirit evidenced by speaking in tongues. Though this doctrine distinguishes the AG from other evangelicals, there is no doubt that the AG specifically, and Pentecostals generally, are evangelicals. Indeed, the Assemblies of God was a founding member of, and is the largest denomination within, the National Association of Evangelicals.)

Today, unfortunately, the term evangelical serves as “an ethnic, cultural, and political designation rather than a theological or devotional one,” according to Kidd. For example, you undoubtedly have heard that 81 percent of evangelical voters in the 2016 presidential election cast their ballots for Donald Trump. Pollsters identified “evangelicals” with “white religious Republicans.” This identification was problematic for at least two reasons:

  1. Non-white voters were not classified as evangelicals even if their theology and spirituality matched traditional markers of evangelicalism — e.g., conversion, Bible, and divine presence.
  2. White voters who self-identified as “evangelicals” retained the identification even if their theology and spirituality didn’t match those traditional markers.

This “politicization” of evangelicalism is a crisis for the health of the movement long term. It trades the traditional emphasis on conversion, Bible, and divine presence for an emphasis on partisan politics, leaving in its wake “the widespread perception that the movement is primarily about obtaining power within the Republican Party.” In the process, it overlooks the tremendous growth of evangelical forms of Christianity among the very racial and ethnic minorities — black, Hispanic, Asian — who represent a rising tide in America’s demographic sea. At the very moment when America’s Christians need to speak with a united voice across a wide range of social and ethical issues, politicization makes it harder for us to do so. United by faith, evangelicals are divided by politics.

Kidd’s brief survey of evangelical history shows that “the tension between the spiritual and political goals of evangelicals has existed since the 1740s,” the era of the Great Awakening, when George Whitefield, Jonathan Edwards, and John Wesley were leading Anglophone evangelicalism. Politics, in a sense, cannot be avoided, since our nation — any nation, for that matter — must decide what its public policies are. But politicization, the reduction of the gospel to policy and of Christianity to party, both can and should be avoided, lest the good news be tarnished by the lust for earthly power.

“Partisan commitments have come and gone,” Kidd concludes. “Sometimes evangelicals have made terrible political mistakes,” mistakes that he documents in his book, though the mistakes are leavened somewhat by evangelical successes. “But conversion, devotion to an infallible Bible, and God’s discernible presence are what make an evangelical an evangelical.”

Whether the term evangelical can be rehabilitated to shed its racial, ethnic, and partisan connotations is an open question. If that question is to be answered affirmatively, however, it will likely be along the lines Kidd sketches in this historical introduction to the religion of the born-again, which I fervently hope will be born again.

Book Reviewed
Thomas S. Kidd, Who is an Evangelical? The History of a Movement in Crisis (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2019).

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

P.P.S. This review first appeared at InfluenceMagazine.com and is posted here with permission.

Trends in Bible Engagement | Influence Podcast


Sixty-three percent of U.S. adults “agree somewhat or strongly that the Bible contains everything a person needs to know to live a meaningful life,” with 38 percent “strongly” agreeing. That seems like a good thing, right? Unfortunately, the “data shows a continuing downward trend from the previous year (42% who agree strongly) and the all-time high of 53% in 2011.”

For the past decade, the American Bible Society, in conjunction with the Barna Group, has released an annual State of the Bible report, surveying what Americans believe about and how they use the Bible. In this episode of the Influence Podcast, I’m talking to Dr. John F. Plake about Bible engagement trends, based on the 2019 report.

I’m George P. Wood, executive editor of Influence magazine, and your host. John F. Plake, Ph.D., is senior manager of Ministry Intelligence for the U.S. Ministry section of the American Bible Society, as well as an ordained Assemblies of God minister. Founded in 1816, the mission of the American Bible Society is “making the Bible available to every person in a language and format each can understand and afford, so all people may experience its life-changing message.”

ESV Archaeology Study Bible | Book Review


The Bible is God’s Word in human words. As God’s Word, it is inspired and inerrant, the final authority for what Christians believe and how they behave. As God’s Word in human words, it reflects the time and place of its original composition. Interpreting Scripture correctly, then, means understanding both its divine message and its human forms.

Archaeology is one of several academic disciplines that help us do the latter. The interpretive fruit of archaeological investigation is evident in the recently published ESV Archaeology Study Bible, edited by John D. Currid and David W. Chapman. Notable features include the following:

  • introductory essays to the Old Testament and the New Testament, as well as to the books within each testament;
  • notes on individual biblical passages showing how archaeological studies illuminate their meaning;
  • sidebars about specific people, places and concepts mentioned within the text;
  • photos, maps, diagrams and charts to illustrate places, things and events;
  • articles on topics related to biblical archaeology as a discipline;
  • and a glossary, a bibliography, indexes and a brief concordance.

From the outset, the editors identify three “foundational pillars” that characterize their work: “biblical orthodoxy,” “academic integrity” and “accessibility.” They affirm the historicity of Scripture, but they also note instances where archaeologists disagree on the time, place and meaning of biblical events. Most importantly, they show how archaeology helps readers better understand the biblical text’s original context. Let me offer three examples.

First, covenants. The Bible makes repeated references to covenants. For example, referring to the giving of the Ten Commandments, Moses says, “The LORD our God made a covenant with us in Horeb” (Deuteronomy 5:2, ESV). Archaeologists have discovered a number of second-millennium B.C. Hittite covenants between a suzerain and a vassal. These suzerain-vassal treaties lay out the reciprocal rights and duties each has toward the other, though the relationship is not egalitarian. The suzerain is clearly in charge.

What’s interesting about these Hittite treaties for our purposes is that Deuteronomy is organized roughly like one of them. For example, the treaty between the Hittite King Mursili II and his Amurru subject Duppi-Tessub contains five elements: preamble, historical prologue, stipulations or commandments, witnesses and sanctions, both positive (blessings) and negative (curses). Deuteronomy similarly has a preamble (1:1–5), historical prologue (1:6–4:49), stipulations (5:1–26:19), witnesses (31:19–22; 32:45–47) and sanctions (27:9–30:20).

Obviously, there are differences between Deuteronomy and the Hittite treaties. Moses was a monotheist; Hittites were polytheists. Deuteronomy is a covenant between God and His people, whereas the other treaties were between a human overlord and other human subjects. Still, it is helpful to know that when God revealed himself to the Israelites, He did so in a cultural form that they would understand.

Second, parables. Jesus Christ is famous for His story parables — e.g., the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11–32). Interestingly, the only other people to use story parables during this period were Jewish rabbis. They used them to explain Old Testament texts, introducing them with the formula, “To what may the matter be compared?” The Talmud records hundreds of these parables, and all of them are in Hebrew, even though the commentary about them is in Aramaic.

How does this help us understand New Testament parables? For one thing, it helps us understand that when Jesus taught His disciples, He used a well-established Jewish form of teaching — the story parable. For another thing, though the rabbis used parables to elucidate the meaning of the Law, Jesus used them to help His listeners understand the advent of the kingdom of God. Note Luke 13:18,20, for example, where Jesus asked: “What is the kingdom of God like? And to what shall I compare it?” and “To what shall I compare the kingdom of God?” (ESV).

Finally, Jesus’ use of story parables may hint at the fact that He taught in Hebrew. New Testament scholars often say that Aramaic was the lingua franca of the Holy Land in the first century A.D. That’s true to an extent and is reflected in the Gospels. Jesus uttered words and/or phrases in Aramaic (e.g., Mark 5:41; 15:34), certain place names in Jerusalem were in Aramaic (e.g., John 19:13), and Aramaic phrases even made it into the liturgical language of the Early Church (e.g., 1 Corinthians 16:22). But if Jesus’ use of story parables paralleled the rabbis’ well-established form of teaching, and if the rabbis told parables in Hebrew (even long after the first century A.D.), then it stands to reason that Jesus told His parables in Hebrew, too.

Third, the Erastus Inscription. I recently had the opportunity to travel through Greece, retracing Paul’s steps around the Aegean on his second missionary journey. One of our stops was Corinth, a city whose church Paul founded and in which he spent 18 months of fruitful ministry (Acts 18:1–17). Paul wrote two letters to the church in this city (1 and 2 Corinthians), and it is likely that he wrote his magnum opus, Romans, from this city.

Our guide walked us through an overgrown field of grass until he came to a roped-off pavement. Pointing down, he read what’s left of a mid-first-century A.D. inscription discovered in 1929: “ERASTVS. PRO. AED. S. P. STRAVIT.” That’s an abbreviated Latin sentence. When translated, it says, “Erastus in return for his aedileship paved it at his own expense.” (An aedile was a public official in charge of public buildings and, in Corinth, the famous Isthmian Games.)

Interestingly, in Romans 16:23, Paul sends greetings to the Roman church from one “Erastus, the city treasurer,” using the Greek word oikonomos rather than the Latin word aedile (ESV). It’s not certain, but it is quite possible that the Erastus of the inscription is the Erastus of Scripture, whom other New Testament passages identify as a coworker of Paul’s (Acts 19:22; 2 Timothy 4:20).

The value of the Erastus Inscription is not so much that it confirms the existence of a person mentioned in the New Testament. Rather, its value is that it shapes our understanding of the sociology of the Early Church. Sometimes, we think of early Christianity as a movement of poor people with little social influence, which it largely was. But Christ drew converts from all segments of society, including wealthier public officials such as Erastus. This helps us better understand some of the tensions between richer and poorer members that strained the fabric of Corinthian church unity (e.g., 1 Corinthians 11:17–34). I’m not suggesting that Erastus participated in this division, by the way. I’m only pointing out that there can’t be division between rich and poor in the church if there aren’t both rich and poor within the church in the first place.

In many ways, we live in a golden age of biblical interpretation, at least from the standpoint of what we can know about the world of the Bible. The ESV Archaeology Study Bible is an excellent, one-volume reference work that brings to bear the results of archaeological investigation on the necessary responsibility of reading the sacred text in light of its ancient context. Given the amount of useful information the ESV Archaeology Study Bible contains, it is reasonably priced and will repay careful study.

Book Reviewed
ESV Archaeology Study Bible, ed. John D. Currid and David W. Chapman (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2018).

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

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

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