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.

For more information visit MomentumTrainingSeries.com.

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

Sword and Scimitar | Book Review


In his 1996 bestseller, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, Samuel P. Huntington argued “culture and cultural identities, which at the broadest are civilization identities, are shaping the patterns of cohesion, disintegration, and conflict in the post-Cold War world.” He went on to describe several civilizational cohorts, but a comment on Islam is germane here: “In the early 1990s, Muslims were engaged in more intergroup violence than were non-Muslims, and two-thirds to three-quarters of intercivilizational wars were between Muslims and non-Muslims.” Then came his famous (or infamous, depending on your perspective) conclusion: “Islam’s borders are bloody and so are its innards.”

Raymond Ibrahim neither quotes nor cites Huntington in Sword and Scimitar—and of course, Huntington can’t be held responsible for Ibrahim’s scholarship since he’s dead—but I get the impression that Ibrahim would assent to Huntington’s characterization of Islam, then kick it up a notch. Here’s how he describes the book’s thesis in the Preface:

Sword and Scimitar documents how the West and Islam have been mortal enemies since the latter’s birth some fourteen centuries ago. It does this in the context of narrating their military history, with a focus on their most landmark encounters, some of which have had a profound impact on the shaping of the world. However, unlike most military histories—which no matter how fascinating are ultimately academic—this one offers timely correctives: it sets the much distorted historical record between the two civilizations straight and, in so doing, demonstrates once and for all that Muslim hostility for the West is not an aberration but a continuation of Islamic history.”

Islam’s borders have been bloody since its inception, in other words.

Ibrahim argues in favor of this thesis by tracing the causes, fighting, and outcomes of eight key battles between “Islam and the West,” as the book’s subtitle puts it. Four were won by Muslim forces, four by Christian forces. The key battles are, in order, Yarmuk (636), Constantinople (717), Tours (732), Manzikert (1071), Hattin (1187), Las Navas de Tolosa (1212), Constantinople again (1453), and Vienna (1683). His narration of those events is riveting, often drawing on contemporary Christian and Muslim sources. Moreover, he shows the relationship of these battles to other practices, especially Islamic slavery and the Christian Crusades.

Obviously, Ibrahim’s is not a politically correct thesis. Essentially, it blames Islam for centuries of violence against what its author variously describes as “the West” or “Christendom.” Specifically, it identifies the source of that violence as the command of Islam’s prophet, Muhammad, as expressed in both the Koran and the most authoritative Hadith. “I have been commanded to wage war against mankind,” Ibrahim quotes the prophet as saying, “until they testify that there is no god but Allah and that Muhammad is the messenger of Allah.”

It is tempting to dismiss this interpretation of Islam out of hand, but it is an old one. Ibrahim cites both Muslim explanations for and Christian denunciations of the warfare that erupted out of Arabia from the get-go. The Battle of Yarmuk, for example, took place in 636, just four years after the death of Muhammad. In the late fourteenth century, Manuel II Palailogos, heir to the throne of Constantinople, but then a hostage in the court of Turkish Sultan Bayezid, said, “Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread the sword the faith he preached.” Pope Benedict XVI quoted these words in his 2006 speech at Regensburg, and several anti-Christian riots erupted in a few places in the Muslim world, which seemed to some to prove his point.

We often think of the relationship between the West and the Muslim umma as one of colonizer and colonized, respectively. That’s a somewhat accurate way to describe their relationship since the eighteenth century, but until then, it’s just as plausible to reverse the relationships. Until largely Catholic forces under Jan Sobieski defeated Kara Mustafa Pasha before the gates of Vienna on September 12, 1683, the relationship was often the reverse. Successive waves of Muslim colonizers controlled formerly Christian lands, first in the Middle East and Africa, then in parts of southern and eastern Europe. (Ibrahim doesn’t mention the expansion of Islam in other lands). We’re accustomed in this postmodern age to read history from its underside. Ibrahim isn’t a postmodernist by any stretch of the imagination, but much of his narration depends on reminding readers what the defeated Christian populations of the once Christianized Roman empire thought of their new Islamic overlords. It’s definitely an underside perspective.

Still, I have significant reservations about the book. First, Ibrahim positions that book as a history of warfare between “Islam” and the “West.” But by “West,” he really means “Christendom,” which included both western and eastern halves. With the exception of Moorish Spain, it’s the eastern half of Christendom that has been subject to Muslim control the longest. But more problematically, both “Islam” and “Christendom” are complex realities, whose essence is difficult to define. As a Pentecostal, for example, I’m not sure I want to be on the hook for the Crusades, as important as they may have been to medieval Christendom, let alone the cozy Constantinian relationship between Church and State that preceded it. Obviously, I can’t speak for Muslims, but if I were them, I’m not sure I’d buy Ibrahim’s essentialist understanding of Islam as jihadist.

Second, methodologically, by focusing on battles, Ibrahim paints a picture of Christian-Islamic relations that emphasizes warfighting but deemphasizes day-to-day realities. Ibrahim’s subtitle speaks of “fourteen centuries of war between Islam and the West,” but in reality, the battles were not nonstop. They occurred, then things settled down into an equilibrium. We shouldn’t paint too rosy a picture of dhimmi status, of course. Non-Muslim residents of the umma were not treated as the equals of believers, after all. But their lot wasn’t one of constant oppression, either. As Ibrahim himself notes, the brutality often happened in the wake of Muslim losses to Christian forces.

Third, we shouldn’t discount nonreligious, realpolitik, and geopolitical motivations for the warfare that occurred over the centuries. Take the Battle of Vienna, for example, which historians conventionally use to demarcate the beginning of the end of the Ottoman Turkish Empire. The September 12th battle pitted Catholic forces against Muslim forces, at least those were the dominant religious identities of the two sides. But the forces led by Sobieski included Crimean Tatars (Muslims), and the forces led by Mustafa included French and Transylvanian Catholics, as well as Hungarian Protestants. Each of the minority groups within these coalitions had grievances against their coreligionists that impelled them to join forces with the “other side.” In other words, more was at work than simple religious identity.

Fourth, contemporary Christians who read the justifications for violence blanche at the religious motives at work. When Pope Urban II called for the Crusades, he said, “Rise up and remember the manly deeds of your ancestors, the prowess and greatness of Charlemagne, of his son Louis, and of your other kings, who destroyed pagan kingdoms and planted the holy church in their territories.” No Christian today would argue that the State should plant the Church in heathen lands for the perfectly good reason that that’s not the way of Jesus Christ. Christians in earlier ages had no problems with this kind of Church-sanctioned, State-enforced violence, but we do, and with good cause. Given that contemporary Christians scratch their heads at our ancestors religious justifications for war, perhaps we should extend the same courtesy to Muslims as they read their own foundational texts.

Fifth and finally, even acknowledging that some Muslims—say, the fanatics of the Islamic State—read their foundational texts to license violence against others, the vast majority of Muslims don’t. This is the great failing of Ibrahim’s book, it seems to me. Are Islam’s borders and innards bloody? Perhaps, but the first victims are often Muslims themselves, who suffer at the hands of fanatical coreligionists they do not support but cannot overcome. This calls into question the notion that Islam, at its civilizational essence, is little more than ceaseless jihad against unbelievers.

In conclusion, Sword and Scimitar is an interesting book, especially in its quotation of primary sources, which provide a lens through which to view those battles in their historical contexts. The problem is that if you look at Muslim-Christian interactions only through that lens, you miss out on important aspects of the scene before you.

Book Reviewed
Raymond Ibrahim, Sword and Scimitar: Fourteen Centuries of War Between Islam and the West(New York: Da Capo Press, 2018).

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

Frederick Douglass: America’s Prophet | Book Review


Today is the bicentennial of the birth of Frederick Douglass. Born a slave in 1818 on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, Douglass escaped slavery in 1838, fleeing to New York but eventually settling in Massachusetts. Three years later, he began his lifelong work as an abolitionist and civil rights activist.

There are many excellent biographies of Douglass, including three autobiographical works. D. H. Dilbeck’s Frederick Douglass is valuable because it is a “religious biography,” the goal of which is “to explain the substance of Douglass’s faith and show how it shaped his public career.” In Dilbeck’s judgment, Douglass was “the most significant spokesman of his day” for “black prophetic Christianity.”

This prophetic Christianity involved both judgment and hope. “Throughout his long public career,” Dilbeck writes, “Douglass ardently denounced slavery, racism, and bigotry in all its forms.” His opposition to slavery and Jim Crow are well known, but Dilbeck reminds readers that Douglass was an early advocate of women’s suffrage, as well as the rights of Chinese immigrants.

Even so, Dilbeck writes, “if Douglass pursued any single calling that tied together his entire life, it was simply to force Americans to confront the disjuncture between the Christianity they professed and practiced and ‘the Christianity of Christ.’” White Southern Christianity drew particular scorn from Douglass throughout his life, for its defense of white supremacy and the practices of first slavery, then Jim Crow. But he also critiqued Northern Christian complicity and Black Church passivity in the face of injustice.

Douglass had an evangelical conversion in his teens, and he never repudiated the Christian faith, which in fact undergirded his civil rights activism. But the injustice, complicity and passivity of Christian churches led Douglass away from formal affiliation with any congregation or denomination. It also led him to criticize churches that cultivated doctrinal orthodoxy and personal piety, but never engaged in struggle against the great injustices of the day.

After Douglass’ death, Christian Recorder, the leading black Methodist newspaper, summarized his understanding of Christianity this way:

His religion was not a religion of creeds, churches, hymnals and prayer books, but he believed in precept, the life and practice as taught by the Master of “doing unto others as we would have others to do unto us.” It was the “cups of cold water in His name,” “feed the hungry,” “clothe the naked,” not in professions of church phraseology and beautiful song, but in the example with love to our fellows and our neighbors as ourselves, which, after all, is the greatest and only evidence of our love to God.

And yet, alongside the prophetic judgment, there was prophetic hope. Throughout his career, Douglass held the settled conviction that God was on the side of justice; therefore, justice would ultimately prevail. “I recognize an arm stronger than any human arm,” he told an 1853 American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society meeting, “and an intelligence higher than any human intelligence, guarding and guiding this Anti-Slavery cause, through all the dangers and perils that beset it.”

Divine providence did not excuse human beings from taking action, however. Waldo Martin argued in The Mind of Frederick Douglass that by the time of the Civil War, Douglass had replaced his “traditional God-centered religious philosophy” with a “liberal human-centered religious philosophy.” Dilbeck disagrees. He explains:

…the apparent changes in Douglass’s later theology had less to do with some new understanding of God and far more to do instead with the new social and political challenges confronting African Americans after emancipation. Douglass feared that a certain passive spirit might spread among African Americans, especially slaves, if they embraced too-simplistic notions of providence.

“The Lord is good and kind,” as Douglass put it in 1893, “but of most use to those who do for themselves” (emphasis in original).

Douglass’ optimism in the postbellum Reconstruction period — with the abolition of slavery and the passage of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution — was tempered in the post-Reconstruction period because of the recrudescence in the South of the power of white supremacy, which expressed itself by disenfranchising black voters, segregating Southern society and lynching black males.

“I have seen dark hours in my life,” Douglass said in an October 1890 speech. He had just outlined the injustices mentioned above. Yet, he went on to say: “I have seen the darkness gradually disappearing and the light gradually increasing.” Most importantly, “I remember that God reigns in eternity, and that whatever delays, whatever disappointments and discouragements may come, truth, justice, liberty, and humanity will ultimately prevail.”

It is easy, more than 100 years after Douglass’ death, to lionize the man, and there is good reason to do so. He was right on fundamental issues of justice and equality, when so many Christians in his day were wrong. That is a historical fact that all now acknowledge.

As a Christian reader, though, I cannot help but think that D. H. Dilbeck’s religious biography poses an implicit challenge to American Christians today: Are we in fact on God’s side? Are we working to ensure that “truth, justice, liberty, and humanity” will prevail? That is, it seems to me, an open question.

Book Reviewewed
D. H. Dilbeck, Frederick Douglass: America’s Prophet (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 2018).

P.S. This review was written for InfluenceMagazine.com and appears here by permission.

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

The Pietist Option | Book Review


American Christianity is in a parlous state. It constitutes a shrinking share of the population. And in terms of worship service attendance, most of its churches are shrinking too.

Regarding share of the population, most Americans continue to identify as Christians, but that number is declining. According to America’s Changing Religious Landscape, a 2015 report from Pew Research Center, 70.6 percent of Americans identify as Christians, down from 78.4 percent only seven years earlier. Over the same period, so-called “nones” — that is, Americans with no religious affiliation — increased their share of the population from 16.1 to 22.8 percent.

Regarding worship service attendance, Thom Rainer argues that 65 percent of churches are plateaued (9 percent) or declining (56 percent) in worship service attendance. That’s better than the 80 percent figure often bandied about, but it’s still not good. Just a little over 1 in 3 churches (35 percent) are growing.

These data are rough metrics of church health, of course, but it’s difficult to believe the American church is doing well when its numbers head south over such a short period of time. What is to be done? How should American Christianity be renewed?

That is the question Christopher Gehrz and Mark Pattie III take up in their new book, The Pietist Option. Gehrz is a professor of history at Bethel University in St. Paul, Minnesota, and Pattie is senior pastor of Salem Covenant Church in nearby New Brighton. Both are members of the Evangelical Covenant Church, a denomination with Swedish Pietist roots.

Pietism arose in late-17th-century Germany as a response to the perceived spiritual coldness of orthodox Lutheranism. Its first advocate was Philip Jacob Spener (1635–1705), whose 1675 book Pia Desideria outlined a Pietist plan of renewal. (The book’s full title is Heartfelt Desire for a God-pleasing Reform of the True Evangelical Church, Together with Several Simple Christian Proposals Looking Toward This End.)

Gehrz and Pattie self-consciously utilize the outline of Pia Desideria in their book. Noting differences between the circumstances of German Lutheranism in 1675 compared to American Christianity today, they nonetheless think Spener’s basic themes were on target. Thus, their proposals for renewal include:

  • A more extensive listening to the Word of God
  • The common priesthood for the common good
  • Christianity as life
  • The irenic spirit
  • Whole-person, whole-life formation
  • Proclaiming the good news

The authors illustrate these themes from Scripture and Pietist history, but they also show how each theme is desperately needed in today’s churches.

Although I am a Pentecostal, not a Pietist, these themes deeply resonated with my heart. The primary reason for this is that they have deep biblical roots. But a secondary reason is that Pietist instincts long ago slipped the boundaries of Pietist institutions and affected the broader Christian world. Moravian Pietists, for example, deeply influenced the spirituality of John Wesley, who in turn formed the spirituality of Methodism and evangelicalism, which in turn shaped my own tribe’s spiritual sensibilities.

A final reason why The Pietist Option so deeply resonated with me is its Jesus-centeredness. The entire program of Pietism, if program is the right term, can be summarized in four words: Come back to Jesus. Gehrz and Pattie write:

… Pietists who live in, with, and for the person of Jesus probably feel his presence more than they think about the idea of Christ. But they also tend to suspect that if we answer the call to “Come back to Jesus,” we’ll soon find that being a Christ-follower is both less and more than we’ve assumed.

Less because if those four words are the call, then there’s a good chance that we’ve made Christianity too complicated. So Pietists simplify. For example, their lists of essential doctrines tend to be short…

More in that answering that call leads to growth, to change so radical that we can only start to describe it with two of the New Testament’s most audacious metaphors: new birth (Jn 3:7) and new life (e.g., Rom 6:4). Pietists fully expect the encounter with Jesus to be transformative …

The Pietist Option is not a full-orbed battle plan for the Christianization of American society. It doesn’t outline a rigorous intellectual apologetic, for example, nor does it detail the shape of the reform of church and culture. It doesn’t necessarily oppose those things, I should add — although “irenic spirit” and “culture war” don’t jibe. But my guess is that Pietism doubts Christian ideas and reforms will work if Christians themselves don’t first and foremost have a living trust in Jesus.

So, come back to Jesus! It’s not the only thing to say about the renewal of Christianity, but it’s certainly fundamental.

 

Book Reviewed
Christopher Gehrz and Mark Pattie III, The Pietist Option: Hope for the Renewal of Christianity (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2017).

P.S. This review was written for InfluenceMagazine.com and appears here by permission.

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

The Myth of Robert E. Lee


Over at The Atlantic, Adam Serwer exposes what he calls “The Myth of the Kindly General Lee.” It’s well worth reading. Here’s a sample:

The myth of Lee goes something like this: He was a brilliant strategist and devoted Christian man who abhorred slavery and labored tirelessly after the war to bring the country back together.

There is little truth in this. Lee was a devout Christian, and historians regard him as an accomplished tactician. But despite his ability to win individual battles, his decision to fight a conventional war against the more densely populated and industrialized North is considered by many historians to have been a fatal strategic error.

But even if one conceded Lee’s military prowess, he would still be responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Americans in defense of the South’s authority to own millions of human beings as property because they are black. Lee’s elevation is a key part of a 150-year-old propaganda campaign designed to erase slavery as the cause of the war and whitewash the Confederate cause as a noble one. That ideology is known as the Lost Cause, and as historian David Blight writes, it provided a “foundation on which Southerners built the Jim Crow system.”

And…

Lee is a pivotal figure in American history worthy of study. Neither the man who really existed, nor the fictionalized tragic hero of the Lost Cause, are heroes worthy of a statue in a place of honor. As one Union veteran angrily put it in 1903 when Pennsylvania was considering placing a statute to Lee at Gettysburg, “If you want historical accuracy as your excuse, then place upon this field a statue of Lee holding in his hand the banner under which he fought, bearing the legend: ‘We wage this war against a government conceived in liberty and dedicated to humanity.’” The most fitting monument to Lee is the national military cemetery the federal government placed on the grounds of his former home in Arlington.

To describe this man as an American hero requires ignoring the immense suffering for which he was personally responsible, both on and off the battlefield. It requires ignoring his participation in the industry of human bondage, his betrayal of his country in defense of that institution, the battlefields scattered with the lifeless bodies of men who followed his orders and those they killed, his hostility toward the rights of the freedmen and his indifference to his own students waging a campaign of terror against the newly emancipated. It requires reducing the sum of human virtue to a sense of decorum and the ability to convey gravitas in a gray uniform.

Read the whole thing!

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