My Year in Podcasting | 2020

I host the weekly Influence Podcast. Below are the 35 conversations I hosted with a variety of Christian leaders this past year. For all episodes, visit

And if you’re looking for past years’ podcasts, here are the links: 2019 Podcasts |  2018 Podcasts | 2017 Podcasts | 2016 Podcasts | 2015 Podcasts.

Episode 238. Diane Langberg, “Christ Used His Power Redemptively, and So Should We!”

Episode 237. Mark Batterson, “Seven Habits That Reduce Stress and Increase Productivity”

Episode 236. Gary Tyra, “The Dark Side of Discipleship”

Episode 235. David Docusen, “Becoming a Church that Crosses Racial and Economic Divides”

Episode 234. Priscilla Pope-Levison, “Eight Models of Evangelism”

Episode 233. Beth Grant and Crystal Martin, “Moving the Ministry of Women from Theology to Practice”

Episode 232. Chris Colvin and Dick Hardy, “Improving Your Preaching in the Coming Year”

Episode 231. Jeffery Portmann, “Pioneers, Settlers, and the Local Church”

Episode 230. Don Everts, “The Better Way of Neighborly Love”

Episode 229. Karl Vaters, “After COVID, What?”

Episode 228. Jason Sniff, “Taking Your Small Group to the Next Level”

Episode 227. Scott Sauls, “Outrage Culture vs. Gentle Jesus”

Episode 226. Joshua Chatraw, “A Better Way of Doing Apologetics”

Episode 225. Eric Kniffin, “Where Is the Supreme Court Going with Religious Freedom?”

Episode 224. Mark DeYmaz, “The Multiethnic Church as a Solution to Racism”

Episode 223. Mark Entzminger, “How to Make Your Church Spiritually Safe for Kids”

Episode 222. Alex Bryant, “What Racial Reconciliation Requires”

Episode 221. Tim Enloe, “Baptism in the Holy Spirit”

Episode 220. John Davidson, “How to Relaunch Your Church”

Episode 219. Chuck DeGroat, “The Narcissistic Leader”

Episode 218. Jay Kim, “After Digital Church, What?”

Episode 217. Don Everts, “Messy Prayers, Loud Tables, and Open Doors”

Episode 216. Alan Ehler, “How to Make Big Decisions Wisely”

Episode 215. John Davidson, “How to Lead When Your Church Is Closed”

Episode 214. Jason Thacker, “What Christians Should Know about Artificial Intelligence”

Episode 213. Joe Dallas, “When Someone You Love Is Gay”

Episode 212. Dr. Brandon Crowe, “A Biblical Approach to Productivity”

Episode 211. John Mark Comer, “How to Ruthlessly Eliminate Hurry from Your Life and Ministry”

Episode 210. Meghan Musy, “How to Read Proverbs for Preaching”

Episode 209. Dan Busby and Warren Bird, “What Effective Board Governance Looks Like”

Episode 208. Tommy Barnett, “The Power of ‘What If?'”

Episode 207. Doug Clay, “What’s Happening in the Assemblies of God Today?”

Episode 206. Amy Farley, “Ministry in the Aftermath of Sexual Violence”

Episode 205. Matthew Kim, “How to Improve Your Preaching in 2020”

Episode 204. Scott Wilson, “Setting Your Church’s Agenda with Prayer”

Understanding Folk Religion | Book Review

Many people who convert to Christianity nevertheless continue to believe and practice elements of the religions from which they have deconverted. The authors of Understanding Folk Religion describe the result as “two-tier” or “split-level” Christianity (15). Their book explains why the split persists despite the teaching of missionaries and church leaders, and how to move split-level Christians toward a more integral faith and practice.

The argument of Understanding Folk Religion unfolds in four sections. In the first section, the authors outline a four-step process called “critical contextualization” (21), which helps missionaries and church leaders understand why converts continue to practice their old religious ways and how to minister effectively to them given those reasons. The four steps are (1) “phenomenological analysis,” (2) “ontological critique,” (3) “critical evaluation,” and (4) “missiological transformation” or “transformative ministries” (21–29). 

The authors also develop a model for understanding religion that incorporates organic and mechanical “root metaphors” (45–47) and a three-tiered “scale of transcendence” (47–48) to help readers “compare and contrast different types of belief systems” (45). The three tiers are “this world—seen,” “this world—unseen,” and “other worlds—unseen” (47–48). Folk religion pertains to the unseen—i.e., non-empirical—aspects of this world, the tier where supernatural beings (organic root metaphor) and forces (mechanical root metaphor) impact peoples’ lives in the present.

The reason why Christian converts continue to practice old religious ways alongside their new faith is because missionaries and church leaders have not demonstrated the applicability of the new faith to the existential concerns the old ways address. Section two describes four concerns in particular: “the meaning of life and death” (chapter 5), “human well-being and misfortune” (chapter 6), “guidance and the unknown” (chapter 7), and “right and wrong.” Section three describes how folk-religious practices and organizational structures both express and reinforce folk-religious beliefs.

Sections two and three constitute a phenomenological analysis of folk religion, the first step in the authors’ four-step process, and the one that missionaries and church leaders typically spend little time performing. Section four runs quickly through the remaining steps in the process, which usually garner missionaries’ and church leaders’ greatest attention. Throughout, the authors’ intention has been practical. Their central argument is that “understanding the religious manifestations of the folk (common people in any socioreligious context) can itself be a means to lead appropriate ministry meeting people’s felt needs and issues” (392).

Several points of both affirmation and critique are worth making. 

First, affirmation: Though the authors draw most of their examples from folk religions outside the U.S.—which reflects their ministry experience as foreign missionaries and academic training as anthropologists and missiologists—both their critical contextualization process and three-tiered model of religion have direct application to the mission of the church within the U.S. too. Though Christianity has long been the dominant formal religion in the U.S., its practitioners still turn to folk-religious beliefs and practices to manage their everyday lives. One thinks here not merely of New Age and Eastern meditation practices increasingly utilized by even Christians, but especially of the prosperity gospel, which though it cites Scripture, is basically a mechanical approach to good fortune involving the use of magical words such as “I confess,” “I claim,” and the like.

This raises a point of critique, however. The authors understand folk religion in distinction from the transcendent spiritual and the immanent empirical. The former points to the beliefs and practices of formal religions such as Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism; while the latter describes, at least in a Western context, the beliefs and practices of modern science.

The problem with this understanding is twofold: First, at least for Christianity, the “formal” religion explicitly addresses the concerns of “folk” religion. This suggests that the distinction between the two is not hard and fast. This suggestion is confirmed by the authors’ insistence that missionaries and church leaders address in Christian terms the legitimate existential concerns that folk-religious beliefs and practices raise. If Christianity can do this, however, what difference is there between the formal and the folk dimensions within Christianity?

If the difference can be elided, the obvious question is why Christian missionaries and church leaders have so often missed the “excluded middle” (89) of folk religion in their missional efforts. The answer, which the authors themselves point to, is found in the post-Enlightenment division between a totally transcendent supernaturalism and a totally immanent naturalism. Ironically, then, as Western missionaries have critiqued the syncretism of non-Western Christian converts, they have unwittingly practiced an Enlightenment-tinged syncretism of their own.

This Enlightenment-tinged Christianity points to a second critique. As Christian influence continues to fade in Western European and North American countries, the nature of folk religion may very well shift. Already, many people in those societies pick and choose from a smorgasbord of Eastern religious practices—Buddhist mindfulness, Hindu yoga, Confucian Qi. This includes people who identify as Christians. But once formal religious affiliation disappears, what does folk religion become? If secularism erases the unseen transcendent world from people’s spiritual and moral imagination, but it cannot erase the existential issues that traditional folk-religious beliefs and practices address, what form will folk religion take? In an increasingly secularizing world, it may be necessary to secularize the very concept of religion itself in order to understand, from a Christian point of view, the religionless religion that people now practice. One attempt in that direction is David Zahl’s excellent, Seculosity: How Career, Parenting, Technology, Food, Politics, and Romance Became Our New Religion and What to Do about It.

Despite these criticisms, Understanding Folk Religions is an insightful book that should be read by missionaries and church leaders, as well as missiologists and theologians. It is an academic book, so it is intellectually demanding of readers at many points. Nevertheless, it illuminates both why Christians continue to practice their old religions despite repeated discipleship otherwise, and how to move them toward a more integral Christian faith and practice.

Book Reviewed
Hiebert, Paul G., R. Daniel Shaw, and Tite Tiénou. Understanding Folk Religion: A Christian Response to Popular Beliefs and Practices. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1999.

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Encountering Religious Pluralism | Book Review

Christianity was borne into a religiously plural cultural environment. It emerged from the womb of Judaism (that itself had multiple forms) into the world of polytheism, imperial cults, and mystery religions. This required Christians to make sense of their faith vis-à-vis these others faiths. This obligation still rests on Christians, for globalization has put us in constant contact with religious (and nonreligious) “others,” whose beliefs, behaviors, and forms of belonging often differ significantly from our own.

Over the last few decades, three basic theologies of religion have emerged among Christians. Exclusivism is roughly the position that Jesus Christ is ultimate in terms of both revelation and salvation. One must have faith in him to be saved. Outside of him, no one is saved. Inclusivism agrees on Christ’s ultimacy, but it also affirms that truth can be found in other religions and that some who have not heard the gospel through no fault of their own may experience salvation because of their positive response to what natural revelation they had. On this view, no one is saved apart from Christ, but some may be saved apart from explicit faith in Christ.

Pluralism is roughly the idea that all religions are revelatory and salvific to basically the same degree. Just as all roads lead to Rome, so all religions lead to Heaven. Today, pluralism is the ethos of globalized societies as well as an ideology that relativizes the exclusive (and inclusive) claims of any particular religion. Among self-identified Christian theologians, the most comprehensive presentation of pluralism is John Hick’s An Interpretation of Religion of Religion, whose subtitle, “human responses to the transcendent,” epitomizes his argument.

Encountering Religious Pluralism by Harold Netland is a critique of religious pluralism generally, and Hick’s version specifically, as well as an explanation of why pluralism has become so widespread, not merely in the academy but also in popular culture. Part One offers the explanation, while Part Two outlines the critique. The book is well worth reading. If not the definitive refutation of Hick’s pluralism, it certainly constitutes one of the most thorough rebuttals.

Netland summarizes Hick this way:

At the heart of his model are three claims: (1) that there is an ultimate reality to which the different religions are legitimate responses, (2) that the various religions are historically and culturally conditioned interpretations of this reality, and (3) that soteriological transformation is occurring roughly to the same extent within the major religions. Therefore, the various religions are to be affirmed as equally legitimate religious alternatives, with preferences among them largely being functions of individual characteristics and social and cultural factors (221).

Netland later summarizes his critique of Hick this way:

Given that his proposal is a second-order theory intended to account for the first-order data from the religions, the adequacy of his theory depends largely upon two factors: (1) the accuracy with which his theory reflects, and the ease with which it can accommodate, the data from various religious traditions, and (2) the internal consistency of the theory itself. I will argue that Hick’s model is fatally flawed on both accounts (232).

The central problem with Hick’s model is that it is, ironically, insufficiently pluralistic. It is reductionist and reinterpretive. As Netland states the matter, “although it purports to be an explanatory model that accounts for the data from the various religious traditions, it does so by reinterpreting the actual beliefs and practices of the religions in ways unacceptable to orthodox practitioners of the religions themselves” (232).

Sumner Twiss has defended Hick against the charge of reductionism by distinguishing “descriptive” and “explanatory” reductionism. He argues that Hick has not engaged in the former kind of reductionism—i.e., Hick does not incorrectly describe others’ religious beliefs and practices. According to Twiss, Hick does engage in explanatory reductionism, but this is not particularly controversial, since all explanations are reductive to one degree or another.

Netland identifies the flaw in this defense, however, by comparing pluralism with “religion-specific explanations” (RSEs, 233). All religions attempt to explain the existence of other religions, and then critique them. Netland summarizes the problem with Hick’s explanatory reductionism this way:

… the adequacy of an RSE as a general explanation of other religions will depend upon the justification one has for accepting the religious worldview from which the RSE emerges. This must be established on other, independent grounds apart from the RSE itself. But we do not have an analogous case with Hick’s model. One does not first establish the justification for his proposal and then from within the theory provide an explanation for other religions—Hick’s proposal is that explanation. As such, the adequacy of his model is in large measure a function of its internal consistency as a theory and its capacity to account for the first-order data of the major religions without distorting them in the process (234–235).

Seen in this light, Hick’s model only works because it radically reinterprets basic tenets of other religions in order to fit the model, rather than changing the model to fit the basic tenets of other religions. So, for example, Netland argues that “each tradition ascribes ultimacy to its own particular conception of the religious ultimate,” but Hick’s model reduces each claim to ultimacy to “merely a penultimate manifestation of what is truly ultimate—the Real” (235). For example, the Christian claim that the Holy Trinity is ultimate must be reduced to a human response to the divine on an equal footing with other religious claims to ultimacy, even though practitioners of the religion due not agree with Hick’s reinterpretation of their ultimacy claim.

The other basic shortcoming of Hick’s model of religious pluralism is its internal consistency. Two issues arise here, specifically. First, Hick correctly notes that some religions have a personal ultimate (e.g., Christianity) and others an impersonal ultimate (e.g., certain strains of Hinduism and Buddhism). According to Hick, both what he calls “personae” and “impersonae” characterize the Real. This creates a problem of consistency, according to Netland, “due to the undeniable differences among such images of the religious ultimate” (238–239). Netland asks: “Can one seriously maintain that the ontological implications of the Judeo-Christian understanding of the divine as Yahweh, the ontologically independent personal Creator and righteous Judge are compatible with the monistic implications of the Hindu notion of nirguna Brahman or with the ontologically ultimate image of sunyata (emptiness) in Zen?” (239). Not without setting logic to the side, it seems.

No wonder, then, that over the course of his writings, Hick placed “increasingly greater emphasis on the theme of ineffability, so that the Real is said to be utterly beyond the range of human conceptual and linguistic categories,” writes Netland (243). There are at least two problems with Hick’s version of ineffability: First, it is self-referentially absurd. “If this were the case, Netland writes, “then at the very least ‘the property of being totally beyond conceptual and linguistic categories would apply to the Real, thereby refuting the original claim” (243).

Second, and worse, the final basic claim of Hick’s model, about “soteriological transformation,” runs afoul of ineffability too: “If indeed the Real in itself is beyond moral categories, so that it is neither good nor evil, how can Hick use a moralcriterion in this manner?”—that is, in evaluating why Muhammad is a genuine prophet but, say, Jim Jones is not (245). In other words, Hick has to take sides, which means that pluralism doesn’t adequately and consistently explain diverse religious phenomenon.

After reading Netland, it seems to me that we can know “the Real” to a significant enough degree or we can’t. If we can, then we must find the religion that most closely aligns with it. But this involves judgment, choosing both for and against religious claims. Hick’s model claims to avoid this problem, but in the end, it’s just one model among many religion specific explanations, thus failing to oblige any religious believer to choose it rather than his or her own faith.

Encountering Religious Pluralism is a much broader book than I have portrayed in this long review, which is essentially a recapitulation of Chapter 7, “The Problems of Pluralism.” I have done this because Netland’s critique of Hick cuts to the heart of problems both with Hick’s model of religious pluralism, and others’. But the entire book is worth reading, and the final chapter sketches the outline of a Christian theology of religions.

Book Reviewed
Harold Netland, Encountering Religious Pluralism: The Challenge to Christian Faith and Mission (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000).

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Only One Way? | Book Review

Gavin D’ Costa, Paul Knitter, and Daniel Strange compare and contrast three models of how Christianity relates to other world religions in their book Only One Way? D’ Costa is a Catholic theologian and outlines the formal position of the Catholic church, which is inclusivism. Knitter also is a Catholic theologian teaching at a mainline Protestant seminary and presents a model common among liberal theologians, whether Catholic or Protestant: pluralism. Daniel Strange is a Reformed theologian with a Dutch Calvinist bent a model typically called exclusivism, though he rejects that label as denigratory.

D’ Costa summarizes the inclusivist theology of the Catholic church this way:

God through Christ is the cause of all salvation and the Church is Christ’s body on earth, the means by which all grace is mediated. How this grace might be meditated to those outside the Church is an area that is not defined or resolved, but that this grace is mediated to those outside the Church is a certainty. Catholics can be confident that non-Christians might be saved which is the solemn dogmatic teaching on this matter (22).

Knitter does not provide as concise a summary of his model of pluralism, but he outlines three assumptions that shape his thinking, all of which together lead to a denial of the uniqueness of Christianity vis-à-vis other religions. Essentially, then, he argues that different religions can be both revelatory and salvific.

Knitter’s three assumptions concern “how theology works,” “the role of language in theology,” and “two of the most challenging issues that confront Christian faith and life today” (47). For him, theology is “a mutually clarifying and a mutually criticizing conversation between Christian experience and beliefs on the one side and ongoing human experience and understanding of self and the world on the other side” (47–48). Regarding religious language, he believes that “all ‘God talk’ is symbolic” (49); consequently, “if all our words are symbols, then, in general, they should not be taken literally” (50). Finally, he identifies the need for interreligious cooperation and the alleviation of poverty, together with environmental protection, as the most challenging. He says these issues shape “the two criteria by which I will evaluate whether a Christian theology is both meaningful for our contemporary world and faithful to the message of Jesus: is it liberative [poverty/environmentalism] and is it dialogical [interreligious cooperation]?” (51).

Reflecting especially the influence of Dutch Calvinist theologians J. H. Bavinck, Cornelius Van Til, Strange offers this definition of his model:

… from the presuppositions of an epistemologically authoritative biblical revelation (itself presupposed on the self-contained ontological triune God who speaks authoritatively), I will argue that non-Christian religions are essentially an idolatrous refashioning of divine revelation, which are antithetical and yet parasitic on Christian truth, and of which the gospel of Jesus Christ is the ‘subversive fulfillment’ (93).

Strange goes on to advocate as “a holistic, transformative or integral approach to mission that recognizes, on the one hand, the spiritual and social dimensions of sin and idolatry and, on the other,, the scope of the gospel and its entailments to transform individuals, communities and cultures, spiritually, socially, economically, politically, and so on” (132).

Regarding evangelism specifically, he writes: “Given that eternal life is only to be found in the gospel of Christ, and that normatively this comes through the human messenger in this life, in terms of missionary activity, we must speak about the ultimacy of evangelism, that is, the verbal proclamation of the gospel message with the call for faith and repentance in Christ” (134).

Only One Way? unfolds in three parts: In Part 1, each author presents a “position paper” that outlines how his model treats the standard theological loci: “philosophical presuppositions, theological presuppositions, creation, fall, God, Christ, Trinity, salvation, eschaton, dialogue, social justice, and mission” (v). In Part 2, each author responses to the other two authors’ position paper. Finally, in Part 3, each author evaluates the other two authors’ responses. This format allows readers to see how the three models are similar and dissimilar, as well as to evaluate how each model holds up under criticism.

Interestingly, though the Catholic D’ Costa and the Calvinist Strange disagree (sometimes strongly) on various issues, they seem to hold more in common with one another than either holds with Knitter, even though both D’ Costa and Knitter are Catholic. Knitter himself recognizes this, writing: “if we line the three of us up on the spectrum that represents the Christian churches nowadays – with the liberal one on the left, the conservative Dan on the right, and the mainline Gavin in the middle – then it seems to me that the ‘middle’ is much closer to the right than to the left” (199).

The overall benefit of this book is that it shows how different Christian theologies of religion arise from different theological methods and philosophical assumptions. Tradition plays a significant role for D ‘Costa, human experience for Knitter, and biblical revelation for Strange, though to some degree, each author incorporates tradition, experience, and revelation into their argument. The fact that Knitter recognizes his distance from D’ Costa and Strange may point to the conclusion that in reality there are just two positions in a Christian theology of religions, one that recognizes the ultimacy of Christ, and one that does not.

The question on my mind as I turned the last page of this book was whether, in the end, the denial of Christ’s ultimacy even qualifies as a Christian theology. At the very least, it seemed to me to be a theology on the way out the door of the Christian house.

Book Reviewed
Gavin D’ Costa, Paul Knitter, and Daniel Strange, Only One Way? Three Christian Responses on the Uniqueness of Christ in a Religiously Plural World (London: SCM Press, 2011).

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The Uniqueness of Christ | Book Review

Chris Wright opens The Uniqueness of Christ by noting that “the supermarket mentality dominates popular thinking about religion” (12). This reduces religion to a “commodity” and a religionist to a “consumer” (13). Under this mentality, then, religion becomes a consumer product, and as the Latin aphorism puts it, De gustibus non disputandum est.

This mentality creates problems for those religions, such as Christianity, that makes absolute truth claims or require exclusive loyalty. With that in mind, Wright states the guiding question of the book: “So how then can we think clearly about the uniqueness of Jesus Christ in the midst of the religious supermarket in which we live?” (13).

Chapter 1 outlines different aspects of the meaning of religious pluralism, among other things drawing a distinction between “plurality,” the undeniable sociological fact of diverse religions, and “pluralism,” a controversial interpretation of this fact that relativizes all religions.

Chapters 2–4 survey “three main positions that have been adopted by Christian theologians toward other religions” (35). The first is exclusivism, the view that “if Jesus Christ be uniquely the truth, and the only way of salvation for mankind, then that excludes the possibility of other faiths being true in the same way, or being ways of salvation” (38). The second is inclusivism, the view that “ultimately all truth is God’s truth, wherever it is found. So Christ, who is the Truth, must therefore include all that is true in other faiths” (58). As different as these two positions are, Wright notes, “The one, central, and all-important point that exclusivism and inclusivism have in common is their commitment to the centrality of Jesus Christ” (57).

This commonality sets them apart from pluralism, the third position, which holds that “all religions, including Christianity, are related in some way to this ‘God at the centre’, but none of those religions and none of the ‘gods’ they name and claim, is actually the central place” (73). Wright goes on, “It is the basic assumption of pluralism that no single religious tradition can claim to have or to be ‘the truth’. In fact, there is no absolute truth available to us through any religion. There are only partial understandings which are historically and culturally relative. So a theology of religious pluralism goes along with a philosophy of relativism — i.e., the denial of any absolute truth” (74).

Wright believes that pluralism is contrary to orthodox Christianity. “The shift to pluralism … requires either a complete surrender of the uniqueness of Christ, or such a radical redefinition of it that it loses all value” (72). He ends the chapter on pluralism (chapter 4) with this warning: “At best, ‘Christ’ becomes so universal as to be of no real value except as a symbol. At worst, he is exposed as an idol for those who worship him, and as dispensable for those who don’t” (85).

Chapters 5–6 turn to the Bible to help readers “think more clearly about the question of the uniqueness of Jesus” (87). (Wright is a British evangelical, and The Uniqueness of Christ was written with evangelical readers in mind.)

Chapter 5 explores what the Bible in toto says about the Jesus. It argues “first, that the Bible presents us with a radical and comprehensive understanding of the sinful predicament of the human race. It thus prepares us to appreciate what salvation has to be and that only God can save us. In the face of such depth, to talk of Jesus as merely one among any number of ‘saving points of contact with God’ seems an altogether trivial account of his significance” (104). Wright goes on to summarize the biblical data this way: “In Jesus, then, the uniqueness of Israel and the uniqueness of Yahweh flow together for he embodied the one and he incarnated the other. So he shares and fulfils the identity and the mission of both” (105). On this reading of the Bible, pluralism is a nonstarter.

Chapter 6 surveys the biblical narrative to determine what the Bible says about human religions. Wright concludes: “Religion like all things human, has good and bad dimensions, but is never portrayed in the Bible as the means of salvation. The Bible is concerned about people and God, and about the need for the nations to recognise who the true and saving God really is — revealed as Yahweh in the Old Testament and in Jesus Christ in the New Testament. It shows us that God can and does speak to people within the framework of religious understanding that they already have. But this is not in order to endorse that prior religion, but to lead beyond it to the fullness of revelation and salvation in Christ” (139).

Wright concludes The Uniqueness of Christ by exhorting evangelical Christians to do three things: “to clarify our thinkingabout the truth … . We need to strengthen our contending for the truth. And we need to renew our living of the truth” (143). If religion is a matter of truth rather than merely of consumer choice, something like Wright’s position is the only available option for evangelical Christians.

If Christ is “the way and the truth and the life” (John 14:6), then Christians should be able to demonstrate and defend this, with this caveat: “There is little point proclaiming how the gospel is true if people cannot see that it works. The fact of our contemporary western world is that for many people Christianity is not so much regarded as untrue (in the sense that they have considered its claims and rejected them for rational reasons), as simply implausible” (149). For that reason, “the church should be the ‘plausibility structure’ for the truth of the gospel” (idem).

If contemporary Westerners reject the truth of Christianity, in other words, it may because too few Christians live out the truth in their own lives.

Book Reviewed
Chris Wright, The Uniqueness of Christ (London: Monarch Books, 2001).

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

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.”

The Rise and Fall of “Evangelical America” | Influence Podcast

Welcome to the 200th episode of the Influence Podcast! I’m George P. Wood, executive editor of Influence magazine and your host.

In this episode of the Influence Podcast, I’m talking to Dr. Mark Noll about the rise and fall of “evangelical America.”

Dr. Mark Noll is the Francis A. McAnaney Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Notre Dame and author or editor of over 40 books, including the two books we’ll discuss in this episode of the Influence Podcast—A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada and Evangelicals: Who They Have Been, Are Now, and Could Be, both published by Eerdmans.

My conversation with Dr. Noll is coming up after a brief word from our sponsor.

This episode of the Influence Podcast is brought to you by My Healthy Church, distributors of Sticky Lessons, part of the Momentum Training Series.

Get the tips you need to teach lessons that stick in kids’ memories, are thought about over and over again in quiet moments, and get discussed at kitchen tables.

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

P.P.S. I reviewed A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada here. If you like my review, please click “Helpful.”

A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada | Book Reviewers

When first published in 1992, Mark A. Noll’s A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada quickly established itself as one of the best, if not the best, treatments of the subject. The second edition of that book revises, updates, and adds to the original text. Its length (592 pages) and price ($55.00) will limit its readership to scholars and students in undergraduate and graduate institutions, who are likely its intended demographic. As a Christian minister in the U.S., however, I heartily recommend it to my North American colleagues who are past their school years because it will enrich their understanding of the development of our faith in these lands.

Noll divides his treatment of the subject into five parts:

  1. Beginnings (17th century)
  2. Americanization (18th-century)
  3. The “Protestant Century” (19th century)
  4. Tumultuous Times (20th-21st centuries)
  5. Reflections

As can be seen from these divisions, the book tells the story—or perhaps, stories—of Christianity in the U.S. and Canada chronologically, though he sometimes jumps ahead of the chronology in order to show organic connections across the centuries.

The book begins with a nine-page analytical Table of Contents that outlines the topics in each chapter, as well as a Preface that briefly describes the revisions, updates, and additions to the 1992 edition. The chapters do not contain notes, but each one concludes with an up-to-date list of Further Readings for those interested in pursuing the topic in greater detail. The book ends with a Bibliography of General Works and an Index.

As a layman to the academic discipline of history, I won’t pretend to offer an academic review of this text. Instead, let me identify several aspects of the book that stood out to me as particularly helpful:

First, as Noll himself notes in the Introduction, “The ‘plot’ of this text centers on the rise and decline of Protestant dominance in the United States. Along the way, full consideration is paid to Canadian contrasts, both Catholic and Protestant.” In large part, this is the story of “evangelical America,” which grew in the 18th century, dominated the 19th, and fractured in the 20th. If you’re looking for a historical explanation of why so many U.S. evangelicals believe that America is a “Christian nation” or feel that their worldview should shape American culture, Noll provides one of the best.

Second, my favorite chapter of the book, if that’s allowable in a personal review of an academic work, is chapter 11, “The American Civil War.” Noll divides the chapter into two sections: “The Civil War as a Religious War” and “The Civil War as Turning Point.” The war both reflected the “Protestant Century,” as each side was intensely religious, and began the unraveling of “evangelical America,” because though each side “read the same Bible” and “prayed to the same God,” as Lincoln put it, their common faith could not resolve their deepest differences. The title of an earlier book by Noll states the matter well: The Civil War as a Theological Crisis.

Third, the comparison to the development of Christianity in Canada, whether in its French Catholic or Anglo Protestant varieties, was informative and humbling. To be honest, I didn’t know much about Canadian history generally, and Noll’s book helped begin to fill that deficiency. In the concluding chapter, Noll writes, apropos of the running comparison of American and Canadian forms of Christianity: “despite a national history without the ideology of special divine blessing, Canada has enjoyed an even better objective argument for having enjoyed the history of a ‘Christian nation’ than does the United States.” That’s a bitter pill to swallow, but a medicine we American Christians might want to consider taking, if only to alleviate our symptoms of nationalist pride.

Fourth, and finally, Noll raises the question of where Christians should find meaning in their histories of faith in the U.S. and Canada. He writes: “the history of Christianity in North America, as opposed to the history of North American Christianity, might not be so much about the gain or loss of culture influence as about ‘signs of contradiction,’ moments when the faith offered something unexpected to a person, a problem, a situation, or a region” (emphasis in original). He offers numerous examples of these contradictory signs, but concludes with this one: “They are illustrated supremely by the black acceptance of Christianity, offered as it was with a whip.” There’s much to unpack in these two brief quotes, but for those concerned with the practice of authentic Christianity, they need to be unpacked, for they demonstrate the “theology of the Cross” impinging on how we understand and write our history.

A final personal note: I had the privilege of taking two classes from Prof. Noll when he taught at Wheaton College, from which I graduated in 1991. He wouldn’t remember me—I studied philosophy, not history—but I remember him and his excellence as a teacher. I’ve read the majority of books he’s published, and I can honestly recommend each one.

Book Reviewed
Mark A. Noll, A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2019).

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

Liberty in the Things of God | Book Review

Robert Louis Wilken opens Liberty in the Things of God with this proposition, which American readers likely will find unobjectionable, if not self-evident: “Religious freedom rests on a simple truth: religious faith is an inward disposition of the mind and heart and for that reason cannot be coerced by external force.” And yet, throughout history, this seemingly unobjectionable, self-evident proposition has been more honored in the breach than in the observance.

Consider, for example, the history of Christianity, which was born in the fires of persecution. When Christians became Roman emperors, the formerly persecuted turned imperial power into a sword against pagans, Jews, and heretics. In the wake of the Reformation, imperial uniformity devolved into Wars of Religion and resulted in a patchwork of Catholic and Protestant kingdoms and principalities governed by the Latin formula cuius regio, eius religio — “whose realm, his religion.” Essentially, each kingdom or principality had its established church, and woe betide the people whose religion didn’t match their prince’s!

Exhausted by these religious conflicts, Enlightenment thinkers such as John Locke began to propose a better way. At first, this was tolerance of other religions. Tolerance is the willingness of a majority to countenance minorities; however, that willingness can wane. So tolerance gave way to freedom, which requires the state to protect religious freedom, especially that of the minorities, as a matter of believers’ natural right. The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution is a shining example of this kind of freedom: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

Unfortunately, this brief survey leaves the impression that Christendom was a problem the Enlightenment had to solve. This is a mistake because it overlooks the Christian history of the proposition I stated at the outset of this review. In reality, the Enlightenment drew on ideas that had been circulating among Christians for nearly 1,500 years. The Christian origins of religious freedom is the theme of Liberty in the Things of God.

Wilken traces the intellectual history of religious freedom to Tertullian (ca. 155–240), a  Christian apologist who lived in Roman North Africa and was evidently the first person in Western civilization to use the phrase “freedom of religion” (libertas religionis). “It is only just and a privilege inherent in human nature that every person should be able to worship according to his own convictions,” Tertullian wrote; “the religious practice of one person neither harms nor helps another. It is not part of religion to coerce religious practice, for it is by choice not coercion that we should be led to religion.”

For Tertullian and other Christian apologists of this era, religion was a matter of both individual conscience and corporate practice. Because it was a matter of individual conscience, religion had to be chosen not coerced, a choice made “only by words, not by blows,” as Lactantius (ca. 250–325), a later Christian apologist, put it. Because it was a matter of community practice, religious freedom pertained to groups, not just individuals. Regarding this, Wilken makes a salient point: “The phrase ‘freedom of religion’ enters the vocabulary of the West with reference to the privileges of a community, not to the beliefs of individuals,” or at least, not merelyto those beliefs.

Because religious freedom was for the early Christians a matter of both conscience and community, it necessitated limitations on the powers of government. Jesus Christ had said, “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s” (Mark 12:17), and Christians returned to this passage and others like it to limn the boundaries between the institutions of church and state.

While early Christian apologists such as Tertullian lived at a time when Christians were a persecuted and powerless, though rising, minority, most of Western Christian history has taken place with Christians as the powerful majority. The bulk of Wilkens’ book describes the long millennium between Constantine’s conversion (early fourth century) and the dawn of the Enlightenment (late 17th century), the bookends of Christendom. During this period, Christians donned the habits of pagan Romans and attempted to use government to pursue religious ends.

What’s fascinating in this topsy-turvy scenario is that Christian groups on the wrong side of state power continued to use the arguments pioneered by Tertullian and the early Christian apologists. They appealed to conscience to limit government’s power over a community’s religious practice. At the Diet of Worms (1521), Martin Luther famously explained his refusal to recant with these words: “My conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe.” He was speaking to Catholic authorities. Four years later in Nuremberg, when Lutheran magistrates tried to stop Franciscan nuns from practicing their Catholicism, Abbess Caritas von Pirckheimer wrote of the magistrates, “They knew very well that we had always obeyed them before in all temporal things. But in what concerned our soul, we could follow nothing but our own conscience.”

Conscience. Community. Limits. These were the touchstones of religious freedom that stemmed from Tertullian and other Christian apologists and continued to operate as such throughout Christendom whenever the powers that be overstepped their boundaries. When, therefore, John Locke and other early Enlightenment figures began to argue for first toleration and then freedom of religion, they were sowing seeds in ground long ago plowed by Tertullian and Lactantius.

I conclude my review with Wilkens’ closing words:

It was early Christian teachers who first set forth ideas of the freedom of the human person in matters of religion; it was Christian thinkers who contended that conscience must be obedient only to God; and it was the dualism of political and spiritual authority in Christian history that led to the idea that civil government and religious belief must be kept separate. The process by which the meditations of the past become the certainties of the present is long and circuitous. But by the eighteenth century ideas on religious liberty advanced by earlier thinkers had become the property of all…

These are the Christian origins of religious freedom, a historical story well worth Robert Louis Wilken’s telling of it.

Book Reviewed
Robert Louis Wilken, Liberty in the Things of God: The Christian Origins of Religious Freedom(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 is cross-posted from InfluenceMagazine.comwith permission.

Islam and Christian Mission | Influence Podcast

What should Christians believe about Islam? And how should Christians treat their Muslim neighbors? Contemporary events both abroad and in the U.S. require thoughtful Christians to answer these questions.

In Episode 173 of the Influence Podcast, George P. Wood, Influencemagazine’s executive editor, interviews Mark Brink, Mark Hausfeld, and Mark Refroe about Islam and Christian mission. All three are veteran Assemblies of God missionaries to Muslim-majority nations.

Mark Brink is international director of Global Initiative, a ministry of Assemblies of God World Missionswhose mission statement is “To equip the global church to reach Muslims because every Muslim must know the truth about Jesus.” Mark Hausfeld is professor of Urban and Islamic Studiesat the Assemblies of God Theological Seminary. And Mark Renfroe is director of Reaching Africa’s Muslims, an AGWM initiative to plant the Church among Africa’s 806 Muslim unreached people groups.

Additional Resources

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

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