God, Trump, and COVID-19 | Book Review


I am working on a review essay about Christian responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. My research largely focuses on books written by, marketed to, or likely to be read by evangelical Christians, where evangelical is defined broadly. Stephen E. Strang’s God, Trump, and COVID-19 is one of those books. (The others were written by Walter Brueggemann, Mark Hitchcock, John C. Lennox, Kristi Mair and Luke Cawley, John Piper, and N. T. Wright.)

Strang is a charismatic Christian with roots in the Assemblies of God. I was interested in reading his perspective because I am a Pentecostal minister, ordained by the Assemblies of God, and currently serving as executive editor of its leadership perspective.

(I should quickly add that this review states my personal opinion only and should not be understood as a denominational evaluation. I should also acknowledge that Strang is a friend of my father’s and has always been kind to my family, and on the couple of occasions where I have met him, to me.)

Unfortunately, despite theological and spiritual affinity with Strang on a number of issues, I cannot recommend this book. There are several reasons for this:

First, Strang does not grapple in a serious way the wisdom the Bible brings to bear on current situation. He does not draw from the well of systematic theology or apologetics to illuminate the pandemic’s meaning. And he does not offer an extended reflection on the ethical dimensions of the pandemic. The other authors I am reading do what Strang does not. He writes, “I want the reader to understand where God is in the midst of a historically tense, intense time” (xv). The desire is good, but the execution is not.

What Strang does instead of grappling with the Bible, theology, and ethics is focus on politics and prophecy. My second and third criticisms have to do with these two issues.

Let me start with politics. Throughout the book, Strang tells readers that God, Trump, and COVID-19 is a follow-up book to God, Trump, and the 2020 Election, published in late 2019. In these books, Strang offers a full-throated defense of President Trump’s action specifically with regard to the pandemic and generally on public policy, respectively. Throughout the COVID-19 book—I have not read the 2020 election book—Strang portrays Trump as the decisive, farsighted leader Christians need to support, all the while castigating Democrats, the Left, and mainstream media. Whatever you may think of Strang’s arguments, his focus is on the political dimensions of the crisis, which is perhaps why he doesn’t deal in any in-depth way with biblical, theological, and ethical issues.

Third, Strang gives too much attention to modern-day prophets such as David Wilkerson, Shawn Bolz, Chuck D. Pierce, and the like. Chapter 1 opens with a 1986 prophecy allegedly given by David Wilkerson:

I see a plague coming on the world and the bars, church, and government shut down. The plague will hit New York City and shake it like it has never been shaken. The plague is going to force prayerless believers into radical prayer, into their Bibles and repentance will be the cry from true men of God in the pulpit. And out of it will come a third Great Awakening that will sweep America and the world (1; cf. 69–71)

I use the term allegedly because the authenticity of the quote has been disputed by fact-checkers. Strang defends the authenticity of the prophecy by attributing it to a hand-written note by Mike Evans based on a conversation the latter had with Wilkerson in 1986. Evans stuck the note in the Bible he was using at the time, and when recently going through that Bible, he claims that the note fell out.

While the Wilkerson prophecy portends a severe plague, prophecies by Bolz and Pierce point to something less. Strang writes, “I believe God’s prophets [i.e., Bolz and Pierce] were saying it [the pandemic] wouldn’t be as bad as the politicians, medical experts, and liberal media were saying” (75). In favor of that interpretation, he notes that the virus seems to have peaked in mid- to late-April in the most affected areas of the country (especially New York City). However, the book was written and published prior to the summer outbreak that has pushed COVID-19 cases and related deaths higher. With another outbreak expected in the fall, those numbers could go higher still.

Fourth, Strang displays throughout the book a penchant for relying on spiritual leaders for accurate information about the pandemic and its effects, even as he seems to downplay expert testimony. (In the quote above, note how he throws “medical experts” under the bus alongside “politicians” and “liberal media.”) This penchant gives Strang’s analysis a patina of journalism, even as his sources are passing along second- and third-hand information.

The most egregious example of this comes in Chapter 3, “China’s Role in the Pandemic.” Strang tells how he received a text message from his friend Frank Amedia. Strang writes that Amedia “had new information from one of his Chinese friends that on the surface sounded like a major conspiracy theory.” Rather than emerging from a Wuhan wet market, the text claimed the virus came “from a Wuhan virology lab that collected hundreds of viruses with the idea of finding vaccines or learning enough to prevent another SARS or swine flu outbreak” (18). Strang tracked down Amedia’s source, whom he names “Jay.” Jay was “a Chinese American Christian who was getting his information from the ‘grass roots’ in China via the internet, and much of it contradicting what we were hearing in the media at the time” (20).

In other words, Strang received a tip from a non-medical expert (Amedia) based on information from another non-medical expert who was not in-country (Jay) who was passing along information received from non-medical sources within China. Given the malfeasance of the Chinese government in its handling of the outbreak in Wuhan, we may never know the truth about the pandemic’s origin. And even mainstream sources and commentators acknowledge the potential of an accidental release of the virus from a Wuhan lab. So, maybe there are elements of truth in Strang’s reportage. My point is that its provenance is suspect. Much of what he reports as insider knowledge was being speculated about on the internet at the same time he received this tip from Amedia. (I know because I was reading all sorts of speculation at that time on the internet.) Public speculation does not become insider knowledge just because you heard it from a guy, who heard it from a guy, who heard it from several other guys, which is literally what the Amedia-Jay-grass-roots chain of testimony is.

My fifth and final criticism is the dark conspiratorial tone with which Strang ends the book. Strang writes:

What if I were to tell you that these events were planned? [In context, these “events” were long-term social trends such as family breakdown that preceded the pandemic.]  What if I were to tell you that powerful ungodly groups actually control/own much of the ‘mainstream’ media, the central banks, and many of the world’s largest corporations and that they all were working in tandem toward an agenda? I know, it sounds crazy, but I believe it’s actually true! Even the UN was founded by some of those very same elites. Look up its history. Now the UN Agenda 2020 and Agenda 2030 clearly lay out this go-forward plan for us all to see. It is slowly pushing us toward globalization. The UN wants people to be all mixed with no borders or national identities. This is their strategy (94).

Strang goes on to describe this as “the ‘beast system’ being finalized and prepared for the next phase” (94). It would’ve been one step closer to reality had Hilary Clinton become president in 2016. However, “God intervened,” writes Strang. “Just when the cabal was about to complete the globalist plan, further give up our rights and sovereignty, and solidify Agenda 2030 through various trade deals, treaties, and laws—just when the nail was about to be driven into the coffin, God heard the prayers of the saints and gave us a last-minute reprieve! He gave us a billionaire who was able to align with the patriots inside the government who wanted to stop the cabal and its sinister plan for our nation and world” (95).

Earlier, Strang acknowledge that Jay’s story seemed like a “major conspiracy theory.” But Jay’s account of the virus’ origin pales as a major conspiracy theory compared to the one Strang closes the book with: the eight-decade globalist cabal that began with the founding of the United Nations. Strang tosses off this conspiracy theory in the final pages of the book without providing any evidence for it whatsoever.

So, for these reasons, I cannot recommend this book as a serious Christian analysis of the COVID-19 pandemic. It is too light biblically and theologically, too reliant on contemporary prophesies, and too strong on conspiracism. Pentecostals and charismatics need to speak into the current situation, showing where God is in the midst of our intense, tense reality. God, Trump, and COVID-19 is not the word we need, however.

Book Review
Stephen E. Strang, God, Trump, and COVID-19: How the Pandemic Is Affecting Christians, the World, and America’s 2020 Election (Lake Mary, FL: FrontLine, 2020).

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

In This World of Wonders | Book Review


Memoirs by philosophers typically don’t garner wide readership, but Nicholas Wolterstorff’s In This World of Wonders should. It records vignettes from the life of a leading Christian philosopher who has made scholarly contributions to the fields of metaphysics, epistemology, aesthetics, and ethics, among others. His Lament for a Son, written after the death of his son in a climbing accident, has helped many Christians journey through grief and is a spiritual classic.

I became aware of Wolterstorff in college when, as a philosophy student, I was introduced to the “Reformed epistemology” that he, Alvin Plantinga, and William P. Alston pioneered. Wolterstorff recounts the origins of that epistemology here, and provides a short introduction to its basic thesis, but he also shines a light on the development of his thinking in aesthetics and ethics. Given his interest in the former, it’s a good thing that Eerdman’s layout of this book was so well done. It’s always a pleasure to read a book where the beauty of the writing is matched by the beauty of the presentation.

For many years, Wolterstorff worried that his interests in different fields of philosophy had no unifying core. But he came to realize that the biblical concept of shalom, which he translates as “flourishing,” in fact integrated his interests. God created this world so that its creatures would flourish. This world-affirming theology, an outgrowth of a Reformed worldview, has guided Wolterstorff’s thinking over the course of a long, productive career at Calvin College, Yale University, and the University of Virginia.

Philosophically minded folk who have read Wolterstorff will be interested in this memoir, but I also think it presents a model of Christian scholarship—both implicitly and explicitly—that will commend the book to professors in other disciplines too.

in-this-world-of-wondersBook Reviewed
Nicholas Wolterstorff, In This World of Wonders: Memoir of a Life in Learning (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2019).

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

Science and the Good | Book Review


Can science be the foundation of morality?

That is the question James Davison Hunter and Paul Nedelisky ask in Science and the Good. Their book traces the history of affirmative responses from the early modern period to the present day, focusing on the “new synthesis” that is comprised of four elements: “(1) a Humean mind-focused sentimentalism, (2) a Darwinian account of why the mind has the traits it does, (3) a human interested-based utilitarianism about morality, all embedded within (4) a strident naturalism committed to empirical study of the world.”

Anyone familiar with philosophy knows that sentimentalism, utilitarianism, and naturalism are contested theories. The question facing advocates of the new synthesis, then, is whether science tilts the playing field in favor of those theories. More specifically, does science provide “empirically observable” evidence in their favor? If not, it’s not clear precisely how science contributes to building the foundation of morality.

Hunter and Nedelisky point out that science might contribute to morality at three different levels: (1) “demonstrate with empirical confidence what, in fact, is good and bad, right and wrong, or how we should live”: (2) “give evidence for or against some moral claim or theory”; and/or (3) “provide scientifically based descriptions of, say, the origins of morality, or the specific way our capacity for moral judgment is physically embodied in our neural architecture, or whether human beings tend to behave in ways we consider moral.” Surveying the arguments new-synthesis advocates make, Hunter and Nedelisky conclude that “nearly all of the actual science attempting to deal with morality lands at Level Three findings.” This is a far cry from providing a foundation for morality, let alone of disposing of rival moral theories.

Worse, advocates of the new synthesis have moved the goal posts. Given its commitment to what Hunter and Nedelisky called “disenchanted naturalism,” the new synthesis no longer thinks of morality in terms of “moral realism,” i.e., that distinctions between right and wrong, good and bad, virtuous and vicious, refer to real, objective distinctions. Instead, those distinctions reflect individual preference or social consensus. The authors elaborate:

The quest [for a scientific foundation of morality] has been fundamentally redirected. The science of morality is no longer about discovering how we ought to live—though it is still often presented as such. Rather, it is now concerned with exploiting scientific and technological know-how in order to achieve practical goals grounded in whatever social consensus we can justify. The science of morality, then has evolved into an engineering project rooted in morally arbitrary goals.

The authors describe this as “moral nihilism,” which seems like an accurate description.

Science and the Good is a deeply researched, well-written book, and I have only scratched the surface of its argument against the new synthesis, which is detailed and complex. So, if science cannot provide a foundation of morality, what can? The authors eschew theological and natural-law arguments. Historically speaking, they argue, it was the failure of those types of arguments to prevent the European Wars of Religion in the post-Reformation Era that catalyzed the search for scientific arguments in the first place.

(I would like to register a demurral at this point. I think theological and natural-law arguments are stronger than Hunter and Nedelisky do. So, I’m not as convinced as the authors are that appeals to such arguments represents a dead end. Moreover, it’s not clear to me that the Wars of Religion were religious failures as much as they were a political failures. They resulted not so much from differences in religion but from desires for sovereignty. But those are arguments for another day.)

Instead of appealing to religion or natural law, Hunter and Nedelisky challenge the premise of the quest to provide a single foundation for morality in the first place—religious or scientific. “In both cases,” they write, “the effort represented different ways of achieving a foundation for a just and humane social order by denying, avoiding, or transcending the knotty, seemingly irreducible problem of difference.” That being the case, the way forward is “to find a common moral understanding throughour particularities—through our differences—and not in spite of them. Surely there are goods we can all affirm and corruptions we can all repudiate, despite coming from different perspectives.”

Hunter and Nedelisky voice this plaintive cry in the last five pages of the book. It is a hoped-for rather than an argued-for position, so not much can be said against it since not much was said for it in the first place. Regardless, in a pluralistic society, perhaps this plaintive cry is the most practical way forward. After all, we can agree that something is right or wrong even if we cannot agree on why it is so. But we can only find that agreement if we talk to one another across the divides—religious, ideological, partisan, etc.—that separate us.

Book Reviewed
James Davison Hunter and Paul Nedelisky, Science and the Good: The Tragic Quest for the Foundations of Morality (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2018).

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

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