Seculosity | Book Review


American organized religion is declining. According to Gallup data, only one percent of U.S. adults claimed no religious affiliation in 1955. By 2017, that percentage had grown to 20. The younger the adult, the likelier the lack of religious affiliation. For adults ages 30–39, the percentage is 28. For those ages 21–29, it’s 33. If you’re looking for evidence of secularization in America, this rise of the Nones is Exhibit A.

And yet, David Zahl claims inhis new book that “the marketplace in replacement religion is booming.” Those replacements don’t look or feel religious, however — at least not in the capital-R sense of the term, which Zahl describes as “robes and kneeling and the Man Upstairs.” They don’t necessarily look like “folkloric beliefs” or “occult belief systems” either: things like charms, telepathy, or astrology.

Instead, replacement religions center around everyday concerns such as — to list the topics of the book’s chapters — busyness, romance, parenting, technology, work, leisure, food, and politics. Zahl calls each of these replacements “seculosity,” a portmanteau of “secular” and “religiosity.” Seculosity is a religious impulse “directed horizontally rather than vertically, at earthly rather than heavenly objects.”

Why does Zahl considers these secular concerns religious? And why should we do so too? Those are fair questions, good ones even, because they go straight to the heart of what our culture thinks religion is.

We typically think of religion in of capital-R Religion terms, that is, organized religion with its concerns for doctrine, ritual, community, and institutions. Those are the outward manifestations of an inward impulse, which Zahl calls “the justifying story of our life.” According to him, religion is “what we lean on to tell us we’re okay, that our lives matter.” It is “our preferred guilt-management system.” In other words, religion is what “we rely on not just for meaning or hope but enoughness.” This search for enoughness characterizes religious Nones just as much as it does the traditionally religious. It is a universal longing.

Take the everyday concern about busyness, for example. Ask people how they’re doing, and they’ll probably reply, “Busy.” I certainly would. Between work, marriage, parenting, and life in general, it feels like every moment of every day is accounted for…and then some. I tell myself to rest, but the moment I start to do so, the nagging suspicion takes hold that a book needs to be read, an article needs to be written, a chore needs to be accomplished, my kids need to be helicoptered over, my wife needs to be date-nighted, the latest blockbuster movie needs to be watched, etc. (Notice, by the way, that even our leisure activities such as dating and movie-watching become have become to-do items.)

These nagging suspicions arise from what Zahl calls “performancism.” He writes: “Performancism turns life into a competition to be won (#winning) or a problem to be solved, as opposed to, say, a series of moments to be experienced or an adventure to relish. Performancism invests daily tasks with existential significance and turns even menial activities into measures of enoughness.”

And woe betide those who fail at these tasks, because “if you are not doing enough, or doing enough well, you are not enough.” Zahl doesn’t quote Blaise Pascal at this point, but there’s a lot of wisdom in the latter’s statement, “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” (Now that I’ve quoted Pascal, however, I’m feeling guilty that I’m not checking off that to-do item either.)

Performancism is “one of the hallmarks of all forms of seculosity,” their underlying assumption, affecting how we approach everyday life. It cripples seculosity’s practitioners with anxiety (Am I enough?), shame (Do they think I’m enough?), and guilt (Have I done enough?). “The common denominator [in all forms of seculosity] is the human heart, yours and mine,” Zahl explains, referring to what motivates our behavior. “Which is to say, the problem is sin.”

In theological terms, you see, seculosity is just the latest example of a “religion of law.” It is a form of self-justification or works-righteousness. And like all such schemes, it is doomed to failure because “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). We are not enough. We have not done enough. We cannot do enough.

The antidote to seculosity is a “religion of grace,” Zahl concludes. “Sin is not something you can be talked out of (‘stop controlling everything!’) or coached through with the right wisdom. It is something from which you need to be saved.” And that salvation depends on the sacrificial love of the One doing the saving. He is enough, and only in Him can you be too.

Book Reviewed
David Zahl, Seculosity: How Career, Parenting, Technology, Food, Politics, and Romance Became Our New Religion and What To Do About It (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2019).

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

P.P.S. This review is from the July-August 2019 print issue of Influence magazine and is cross-posted here with permission.

Why Grace Is More Liberating Than You Believe | Influence Podcast


“There is power available to you that can unlock your soul and all of its hidden longings,” writes John Lindell—“the buried hopes of the past, the strength needed for the moment, and the dreams for a beautiful future. That is the power of the best news: the gospel is able to change your life at this moment, even now.”

In this episode of the Influence Podcast, I talk with John Lindell about this power, which is the power of God’s grace. Lindell is pastor of James River Church, a multisite congregation in Springfield, Missouri. He is devoted to seeing the local church thrive and standing boldly for the cause of Christ. Most recently, Lindell is also of Soul Set Free: Why Grace Is More Liberating than You Believe, just published by Charisma House.

If you’d like to listen to John Lindell’s thoughts about expository preaching, listen to Episode 97 of the Influence Podcast.

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

Evangelizing the Unsaved Christian | Influence Podcast


“The Bible Belt is the most difficult place in America to pastor a local church.” That’s what Dean Inserra’s friend Matt told him as they left seminary to plant churches, Dean in Florida and Matt in California. “In California, there is rarely confusion. Either you’re a Christian or you’re not. In the Bible Belt, many people think they’re Christians but have no concept of … the overall message of the gospel.”

In Episode 174 of the Influence Podcast, Influencemagazine’s executive editor, George P. Wood, talks with Dean Inserra about eight types of cultural Christians and how to share the gospel with them. Inserra is author of The Unsaved Christian: Reaching Cultural Christianity with the Gospel, just out from Moody Publishers. A Southern Baptist church planter, he is founding pastor of City Church in Tallahassee, Florida, where he lives with his wife and his three children.

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

P.P.S. You can read my book review of The Unsaved Christian here. If you like it, please click “Helpful” on my Amazon review page.

The Unsaved Christian | Book Review


Matthew 7:21–23 is one of the most sobering passages of the Bible. “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven,” Jesus tells His disciples, “but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” What does it mean to say, “Lord, Lord”? Jesus explains: “Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’” Regardless of their displays of spiritual power, Jesus’ verdict is negative: “Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’”

Dean Inserra opens The Unsaved Christian with this passage because it so starkly portrays the self-deception of self-identified Christians whom Christ cannot identify as His own. “These petitioners Jesus spoke of loved to say, ‘didn’t we?’ when they should have been saying, ‘didn’t He?’” In other words, they practiced self-righteousness, attempting to merit salvation through powerful spiritual works, rather than receiving God’s gracious gift of righteousness in Christ through repentance and faith in Him.

Today, many self-identified American Christians don’t claim to prophesy or exorcize demons or work miracles, but the central insight of The Unsaved Christian is that they are nevertheless as lost as the “evildoers” of Matthew 7:23. They are Christians in name only, practitioners of cultural Christianity. “Cultural Christianity is a mindset that places one’s security in heritage, values, rites of passage (such as a first communion or a baptism from childhood), and a generic deity, rather than the redemptive work of Jesus Christ,” writes Inserra. He goes on to provide a taxonomy of eight types of cultural Christians:

  1. Country Club Christian: “Self-focused, not missional; church just happens to be the social club of their preference.”
  2. Christmas & Easter Christian: “Holds the Christian holidays close with sentimentality, but the implications of these holidays seem to have little impact on daily life.”
  3. God & Country Christian: “Is ‘proud to be an American, where at least I know I’m free’; digests everything first as an American or member of a certain political party, not as a believer. Can have blinders on to what really matters.”
  4. Liberal Social Justice Christian: “Feels strongly about specific social justice issues; compromises biblical teachings in light of cultural whims; believes that politicians and legislation can fix the world.”
  5. Good Guy Next Door Christian: “Believes God wants people to be good and kind to each other as taught in most world religions; Jesus just so happens to be the mascot, but the specifics of Christianity aren’t really relevant.”
  6. Generational Catholic Christian: “Generally either views Catholicism as a heritage or carries significant guilt to be loyal to its tenants.” (I think Inserra means “tenets.”)
  7. Mainline Protestant: “Generally believes vague things about the Bible but is prone to discard it in favor of the pressing beliefs of the day. Proclaims God’s love in terms of license to seek comfort.”
  8. Bible Belt Christian: “Displays external forms of religiosity and would be offended to be called an atheist, but in actuality, Jesus has little impact on their lives.”

These eight varieties of cultural Christians are ideal types, obviously, but they do describe a lot of the features of what passes for Christianity in contemporary American culture.

For each variety, Inserra elaborates on what it mistakes the gospel for, identifies starting points for gospel conversations, and shows how the gospel, correctly understood, both challenges and provides a remedy for it. Take the Bible Belt Christianity, for example. It is typically found in the South, which Flannery O’Connor described as “Christ-haunted.” Its “unofficial liturgy” is country music, and Inserra provides an insightful look at the religious outlook of three contemporary country songs.

Based on those songs, he comments: “Sadly, many people in the Bible Belt are haunted by the idea of Christ, while not understanding His love for them. The judgment of God lingers in their minds. Believing the gospel would allow them to understand that it is the kindness of God that can actually lead them to repentance (Rom. 2:4). With an awareness of God and our sins, but not the gospel, one is only left with country music theology, hoping God will let us into heaven one day after we have some fun on earth.”

Inserra closes The Unsaved Christian by enumerating three things necessary for evangelizing cultural Christians: “a refusal to be in denial, gospel clarity, and boldness to speak the truth in love” (emphasis in original). Inserra is a pastor, and he intends his book as an aid to pastors and other concerned Christians who long to “make disciples” of Jesus Christ” (Matthew 28:19). Distinguishing between authentic and nominal Christianity is never easy, especially in a supposedly Christian nation, but it’s an evangelistic necessity, lest we leave people thinking what we did, rather than what He did, saves us.

Book Reviewed
Dean Inserra, The Unsaved Christian: Reaching Cultural Christianity with the Gospel (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2019).

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

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

The Most Wonderful Time of the Year | Influence Podcast


Andy Williams sang that Christmas is “the most wonderful time of the year.” He was right, though for the wrong reasons. Now, don’t get me wrong! “Parties for hosting, marshmallows for toasting, and caroling out in the snow” are great and everything, but they’re not what Christmas is ultimately about.

In Episode 161 of the Influence Podcast, I talk to Joseph Castleberry about the real reason why Christmas is such a wonderful time of the year. We also debunk a few myths people believe about Christmas.

Dr. Castleberry is president of Northwest University in Kirkland, Washington, an ordained Assemblies of God minister, and a former missionary to Central America. More germane to this podcast, he’s author of 40 Days of Christmas, published by Broadstreet (which I reviewed here).

Christians in the Age of Outrage | Influence Podcast


America is angry. Turn on TV news, tune into talk radio, check your timeline on social media, and chances are good you’ll see someone angry—outraged!—about something. Some commentators even worry that our nation is on the verge of a civil war.

It would be nice to say that Christians in America are tamping down the fires of outrage, but unfortunately, that’s not always true. Instead, some Christians are fanning the flames. They’re kicking outrage up to 11.

One Christian leader who’s trying to turn the outrage down is Ed Stetzer. He thinks outrage is unbiblical and anti-Great Commission. In his new book, Christians in the Age of Outrage, he explains why Americans are mad, why that’s bad, and what Christians should do about it.

Ed is Billy Graham Distinguished Professor of Church, Mission, and Evangelism at Wheaton College; dean of its School of Mission, Ministry, and Leadership’ and executive director of the Billy Graham Center. He’s also my guest for Episode 159 of the Influence Podcast. I’m George P. Wood, executive editor of Influence magazine, and your host.

P.S. You can read my review of Ed Stetzer’s book here. If you like my review, please click “Helpful.”

The Preacher’s Catechism | Book Review


Preaching is the most important public ministry of pastors. Many books describe how preachers can improve their craft. The Preacher’s Catechismis not one of them. Instead, it focuses on how preachers can improve their character.

Lewis Allen offers this reminder of the greater importance of character to craft in his Introduction:

“And yet, having all of these tools [to improve preaching skills] will not ensure that you are a preacher after God’s own heart, someone who is really serving those who listen to you. Skills have an essential place, but more essential to our calling are a heart and mind captivated by God and his gospel.”

In other words, the heart of preachers is the heart of preaching.

Allen bases his counsel in The Preacher’s Catechismon three convictions:

  1. The church needs preachers who last and thrive.
  2. Preachers must understand how preaching works, and how their own souls work.
  3. The Westminster Shorter Catechism is an outstanding resource for the heart needs of every preacher.

The book organizes its material around 43 questions modeled on that catechism.

The first and second convictions should be uncontroversial points among evangelical Christians. I found the third conviction a bit of a stretch, at first glance anyway. I am Pentecostal — Arminian and egalitarian to boot — so what could I learn from a catechism produced by high Calvinist English Presbyterians? (Allen himself is a Calvinist Baptist.)

A lot, it turns out. Allen’s use of the catechism sheds light on heart issues that allChristian ministers need to address.

For example, consider his repurposing of the catechism’s teaching on the Ten Commandments. The catechism asks, “What does the _____ commandment teach us?” (with first, second, third, etc. filling in the blank). Here are Allen’s answers, which follow the order of the commandments (Exodus 20:2–17):

  1. You shall preach as a love expression to the Lord your God.
  2. You shall not make a preaching idol of your image or of anyone else’s.
  3. You shall honor the name of God as you preach.
  4. You shall rest from finding your justification in your preaching, and rest content and safe in the finished work of the living Word of God, Jesus Christ.
  5. You shall honor those who preached the Word of God to you, and obey what they taught you.
  6. You shall not use your ministry to harm in any way.
  7. You shall not be unfaithful to your ministry by failing to love those you preach to.
  8. You shall not withhold your heart and soul from the hard work of preaching.
  9. You shall not say anything untrue in your preaching.
  10. You shall not set your heart on another’s ministry and gifts.

There is far more to The Preacher’s Catechismthan these reworked commandments, which appear in Part 3, titled “Loving the Word,” of a four-part book. Part 1 is titled “The Glory of God and the Greatness of Preaching,” Part 2 “Jesus for Preachers,” and Part 3 “Preaching with Conviction.”

In fact, there is more to this book on preaching than preaching. Part 4 includes helpful chapters on baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Preaching may be a pastor’s most important public duty, but it is not the only one. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are New Testament ordinances, God-given means of grace that too many evangelical pastors — including Pentecostals — neglect.

Allen closes the book with this statement: “Our preaching will never satisfy us. It isn’t meant to. Let’s give our hearts to God.” In many ways, that’s the core message of this excellent little book.

Some books make for a good read, once. The Preacher’s Catechismis a volume I think I’ll take up and read again. And then again.

Book Reviewed
Lewis Allen, The Preacher’s Catechism(Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2018).

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

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

The Almost Gospel of Ebenezer Scrooge


“Marley was dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it. And Scrooge’s name was good upon ’Change for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Marley was as dead as a doornail.”

Thus begins Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. It’s difficult to imagine Christmas today without this holiday classic. Ebenezer Scrooge’s last-minute transformation has been portrayed so many times on stage and screen that the story’s scenes, characters and plot have become a cultural meme imprinted on our brains. On mine, anyway, despite the fact that I had never read the story until this month.

So, when I noticed an inexpensive copy for five dollars while standing in line a week ago at Barnes & Noble, I snapped it up. A Christmas Carol is a quick, fun read—Dickens at his best. The story’s setting is Victorian London, with Britain in the throes of the Industrial Revolution, but its themes bespeak a timeless, universal longing for wellbeing within ourselves and among our neighbors.

The particulars of the tale are recognizably Christian. Most obviously, its setting is Christmas. There are biblical allusions scattered throughout, including to Jesus’ birth and ministry. The Cratchit family is churchgoing and devout, even to the point of seeing Tiny Tim’s handicap as a spiritual lesson reminding others of Jesus’ healing ministry.

At a broader level, its themes are also Christian. It is a tale of metanoia, the New Testament word for repentance, which entails not just a change of mind but the transformation of an entire way of life.  Scrooge’s transformation itself begins because of what we might call supernatural revelation, first of Marley’s ghost and then of the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future. And Dicken’s excoriation of Scrooge’s greed and praise of his later generosity to the poor reminds readers of Jesus’ own teachings on this matter.

…the almost gospel of Ebenezer Scrooge isn’t even almost good news, insofar as it leaves us in the predicament of knowledgeable sin: We already know, but we still don’t change.

As I read A Christmas Carol, I kept thinking of Jesus’ parable of the rich fool (Luke 12:13–21). Like Scrooge, the rich fool accumulated wealth for himself. (Unlike Scrooge, however, the rich fool encouraged himself, “Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.”) Like Scrooge, however, he never thought of the needy. So, like Scrooge, he died alone and possessionless. Jesus provided the moral to the story: “This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God,” that is, to the poor.

Dickens’ very Christian point is that wealth is either a tool or an idol. We can use it, like the shrewd manager in Jesus’ parable, to “gain friends” (Luke 16:1–15), to establish solidarity with others. Or we can worship it as a kind of god, valuing it above others and even God himself. In many ways, A Christmas Carol is a Dickensian riff on Jesus’ dictum: “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money” (Matthew 6:24).

Even so, A Christmas Carol is an almost gospel, not good news. To see why, consider another parable Jesus told in Luke 16, that of the rich man and Lazarus (verses 19–31). In this parable, a rich man ignores the beggar (Lazarus) at his gate, a beggar who longed “to eat what fell from the rich man’s table.”

When both men die, they experience a reversal of fortune: the rich man in torment in “Hades,” Lazarus receiving comfort at “Abraham’s side.” The rich man begs Father Abraham to send him Lazarus “to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.” relief in hell. Being told that is impossible, he then begs Abraham to send Lazarus to his “five brothers,” warning them of the peril of hell.

Abraham’s response? “They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.” But the rich man replies, “No, father Abraham, but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.” To which Abraham’s final riposte is this: “If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”

A Christmas Carol turns on Ebenezer Scrooge seeing his past, present and future, specifically with regard to his sinful use of wealth and lack of solidarity with others. Dickens is telling us, “If you only knew what wrong turns you made in the past, what opportunities you’ve passed up in the present and what mortal fate awaits you in the future, you would repent.”

Jesus parable of the rich man and Lazarus tells a different story: You already know. In this life, the rich man could see Lazarus sore and hungry at his gate. In this life, his brothers knew what the law of Moses required of the haves with regard to the have nots. And yet they didn’t change. Knowing these things mattered not a whit to them, however.

Knowledge is a necessary component of transformation, but insufficient by itself. We don’t need more information. Romans 2:25 demonstrates that even pagans have sufficient baseline of information to accuse or defend them before God.

What is needed is not information per se—or even more information—but something else. An agent of change outside ourselves. Not an informer but a transformer. The Transformer. As Paul David Tripp explains in his devotional, Come Let Us Adore Him:

God’s response [to our sin] wasn’t a thing. It wasn’t the establishment of an institution. It wasn’t a process of intervention. It wasn’t some new divine program. In his infinite wisdom God knew that the only thing that could rescue us from ourselves and repair the horrendous damage that sin had done to the world was not a thing at all. It was a person, his Son, the Lord Jesus.

Seen this way, the almost gospel of Ebenezer Scrooge isn’t even almost good news, insofar as it leaves us in the predicament of knowledgeable sin: We already know, but we still don’t change. Like Marley, we are dead as a doornail and need someone to raise us to life.

Joy to the world, then, that the Lord has come. Let earth receive her King!

 

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

P.P.S. So, technically, this is an article, not a book review, but I posted it on Amazon.com anyway. If you like the article, could consider voting “Yes” on my Amazon.com review page?

 

 

Basic Christianity | Book Review


What does it mean to be evangelical? Derived from the Greek euaggelion — “gospel” or “good news” — the word describes things that are related to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Since the Reformation, it has been used as shorthand for Protestants generally. With the Great Awakening, it began to be used of a specific type of Protestant: Bible-based, Cross-centered, conversion-required and action-oriented.

Now in the United States, the word more often than not is used to describe a brand of partisan politics, at least in the popular press. This is unfortunate, because the gospel itself cannot be reduced to partisan politics. It is bigger and more fundamental than that. John Stott’s Basic Christianity helps readers remember this by outlining a truly evangelical understanding of Christianity.

Stott writes: “Christianity is a rescue religion. It declares that God has taken the initiative in Jesus Christ to rescue us from our sins. This is the main theme of the Bible.”

Over the course of 11 short chapters, Stott covers who Christ is, the nature and consequences of sin, the atoning work of the Cross, and the necessity of responding to Christ personally.

In the Preface, Stott pens this brief description of basic Christianity:

We must commit ourselves, heart and mind, soul and will, home and life, personally and unreservedly, to Jesus Christ. We must humble ourselves before him. We must trust in him as our Savior and submit to him as our Lord; and then go on to take our place as loyal members of the church and responsible citizens in the community.

Over the course of its nearly 60 years in print, Stott’s little book has found a remarkably broad audience — internationally and ecumenically — and for good reason. It is biblical, orthodox and evangelical in the best sense of the word. I recommend it highly. An individual can read it profitably, but I think the best way to read it is with a group. The third edition helpfully includes group discussion questions at the end of the book.

Stott first wrote Basic Christianity in 1958 for a British audience. It has been revised twice, in 1971 and 2008. As far as I can tell, this 2017 Eerdmans reissue is nearly identical to the third edition. Changes include a new cover and minor reformatting of the text. The biggest change is that all Scripture quotations, unless otherwise noted, are from the 2011 edition of the New International Version.

 

Book Reviewed:
John Stott, Basic Christianity, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 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.

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