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.

How to Walk Away from Toxic People | Influence Podcast


“Sometimes to follow in the footsteps of Jesus is to walk away from others or to let them walk away from us.” That’s what Gary Thomas writes in his new, When to Walk Away, published this past Tuesday by Zondervan. I’ll be talking with him about how to walk away from toxic people in this episode of the Influence Podcast.

I’m George P. Wood, executive editor of Influence magazine and your host. Gary Thomas is writer-in-residence at Second Baptist Church in Houston, Texas, and adjunct faculty teaching spiritual formation at Western Seminary in Denver, Colorado, as well as Houston Theological Seminary. He’s the author of numerous books, including Sacred Marriage, Sacred Parenting, and Authentic Faith.

This episode of the Influence Podcast is brought to you by My Healthy Church, distributors of Say HELLO Forever Friends:

Sharing Jesus is easy when you “Say Hello!” Help kids build intentional friendships with Muslim friends and others who need to know Jesus with the Say HELLO Forever Friends curriculum kit. Start kids on a path to lifelong evangelism while showing them how important it is to connect to others with compassion and care.

For more information visit MyHealthyChurch.com/SayHello.

P.S. This podcast originally appeared at InfluenceMagazine.com and is posted here by permission.

Who Is an Evangelical? | Book Review


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seven Stanzas at Easter | John Updike


Christendom possesses an embarrassment of riches when it comes to poetry about the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

One of my favorite modern poems is John Updike’s “Seven Stanzas at Easter,” which revels in the realism of Christ’s rising, opposing a merely spiritual or metaphorical depiction of that great event.

Enjoy!

*****

Make no mistake: if He rose at all
it was as His body;
if the cells’ dissolution did not reverse, the molecules
reknit, the amino acids rekindle,
the Church will fall. 

It was not as the flowers,
each soft Spring recurrent;
it was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled
eyes of the eleven apostles;
it was as His Flesh: ours. 

The same hinged thumbs and toes,
the same valved heart
that — pierced — died, withered, paused, and then
regathered out of enduring Might
new strength to enclose. 

Let us not mock God with metaphor,
analogy, sidestepping transcendence;
making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the
faded credulity of earlier ages:
let us walk through the door. 

The stone is rolled back, not papier-mache,
not a stone in a story,
but the vast rock of materiality that in the slow
grinding of time will eclipse for each of us
the wide light of day. 

And if we will have an angel at the tomb,
make it a real angel,
weighty with Max Planck’s quanta, vivid with hair,
opaque in the dawn light, robed in real linen
spun on a definite loom. 

Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,
for our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,
lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are
embarrassed by the miracle,
and crushed by remonstrance.

How to Read the Former Prophets for Preaching | Influence Podcast


“All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness,” writes the apostle Paul in 2 Timothy 3:16.

While all Christians agree that Scripture is useful, we don’t often understand how to use it. Today, I’m starting a series of occasional podcasts designed to help pastors improve how they read Scripture so that they can preach Scripture better. I’m George P. Wood, executive editor of Influence magazine and your host.

My guest today is Rick Wadholm Jr., associate professor of biblical and theological studies at Trinity Bible College and Graduate School in Ellendale, North Dakota. Rick received his PhD from Bangor University in Wales, and is author of the recently published book, A Theology of the Spirit in the Former Prophets. We’ll be talking about reading the Former Prophets for preaching.

P.S. This is cross-posted from InfluenceMagazine.com.

40 Days of Christmas | Book Review


Christmas doesn’t begin at my house until Thanksgiving is over. But once the turkey is digested, the tree goes up, Mariah Carey’s Christmas album gets played on endless loop (it’s that good!), and the countdown to December 25th begins. Literally. The kids have a chalkboard that says, “Santa comes to our house in _____ days.” (As of today, it’s 28 days, in case you’re wondering.) For my family, Christmas is a season, not just a day.

Joseph Castleberry’s family and mine are evidently of like mind about the Christmas season. In his new book, 40 Days of Christmas, he provides a daily devotional to guide individuals and families from November 28 to January 6. In the traditional Christian calendar, November 28 is the earliest date Advent can begin, and January 6 is the Feast of Epiphany — a total of 40 days to reflect on the humble birth of Jesus Christ at Bethlehem and to hope for His glorious Second Coming.

Castleberry — “Joe” to his friends, among whom I count myself — is president of Northwest University in Kirkland, Washington, a Pentecostal minister, and a former missionary. He brings scholarly erudition, pastoral insight, and intercultural sensitivity to bear in these short daily devotions. Even if you don’t follow the traditional Christian calendar, these devotional thoughts are certain to inspire your celebration of the Savior at this time of year.

I appreciated three things about 40 Days of Christmas in particular. First, the book skillfully handles Old Testament prophecy. At Christmastime, we too often detach messianic prophecies from their original contexts. But as Castleberry reminds us, “Old Testament prophecies [such as Isaiah 9:6–7] usually had a near-term meaning that related to the time in which they were given, but the prophecies would carry a ‘surplus of meaning’ — elements that contemporary fulfillment did not exhaust.” By noting both the “near-term meaning” and “surplus of meaning,” Castleberry’s devotions help us better understand and appreciate the prophecies Christ fulfilled.

Second, 40 Days of Christmas debunks several Christmas myths. There was no “inn” at Bethlehem that refused Joseph and Mary service. The Greek word refers to the extra room at a house. Christ was not born on December 25, but the reason we celebrate His birth on that date is not because early Christians sanctified pagan holidays. And, there’s nothing wrong with Christians singing “secular” holiday classics like “White Christmas” or “Jingle Bells.” For Christians, even Santa Claus is OK. “He’s a good brother, and he does good work,” as one Pentecostal “prophesied” after his pastor excoriated St. Nick in a sermon — a funny and true story Joe got from my dad, as it turns out.

Third, and most importantly, the book keeps its focus on Christ. Bing Crosby memorably sang, “I’ll be home for Christmas,” and many of us associate Christmastime with going “home for the holidays.” But as Castleberry notes, this isn’t what Christmas is really or ultimately about. Ironically, he writes, Christmas “has everything to do with leaving home on a noble and holy mission to save those who have become lost and helpless without God, who face the danger of losing their heavenly home for eternity.” Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners. That’s the reason for the season.

Castleberry concludes the book with a brief nod to Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, which speaks of the “Spirit of Christmas.” For Dickens, the spirits of Christmas Past, Present and Future showed Ebenezer Scrooge what his life could have been and still could be. For Castleberry — good Pentecostal that he is — the Spirit of Christmas is the Holy Spirit, who played such as prominent role in Christ’s birth (see Luke 1–2) and who “continues to deliver every good and perfect gift that comes from the Father.” If we want to celebrate Christmas all year long, we must be filled with the same Spirit who filled Jesus Christ.

If you’re looking for a devotional to read personally or with your family, I highly recommend my friend Joe Castleberry’s 40 Days of Christmas. Here are his closing words: “My prayer for you is that God will fill you richly with the Holy Spirit, bringing miraculous help to your everyday life throughout the year to come, and indeed throughout your whole life.”

Amen to that!

Book Reviewed
Joseph Castleberry, 40 Days of Christmas: Celebrating the Glory of Our Savior (Savage, MN: BroadStreet, 2018).

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

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

‘Four Faces of a Leader’ by Bob Rhoden and Dean Merrill


201304_062_Four_artThe fall 2013 issue of Enrichment, the quarterly journal I edit, has an excerpt from Bob Rhoden and Dean Merrill’s new book, Four Faces of  Leader. Here are the opening paragraphs:

How do you know if you are an effective Christian leader? If you are like most in ministry, you first check attendance. “How many are coming on Sunday morning?” “What’s my percentage of increase compared to last year?”

Next, you look at your church’s financial record. “Are all the bills paid? Have we stayed on budget? Will the fiscal year end in the black?”

What if I measured myself by standards that told the real truth? Am I passionate about holding true to my original calling? Am I regularly doing acts of practical service? How good am I at casting vision and bringing about necessary change? These tell much more than a weekly head count or dollar total.

The Library of Congress has some 32 million books. Which world leader commands the most shelf space? George Washington? Abraham Lincoln? This may surprise you, but this auspicious place holds more books about Jesus Christ than any other person.

This confirms my inclination to use Jesus as a benchmark for effective leadership. In just 33 years, He accomplished more that has lasted longer with greater impact and wider reach than any leader in history. How did He do it?

In this article, I explore the four leadership faces of Jesus — the shepherd, the servant, the steward, and the seer. I summon you to a leadership journey that can potentially move you from simple survival … to success … and on to significance.

Read the whole thing.

Jimmy Carter Calls Christians to Return to Jesus’ Moral Agenda on Prisoners


In general, I’m not a fan of Jimmy Carter. He was a mediocre president and a meddlesome ex-president. However, over the last two weeks, I spent time in Ph.D. classes with a correctional chaplain from South Carolina. She informed the class of the dehumanizing effects of incarceration and encouraged us with examples of how Christian ministry can rehumanize inmates. What she said helped me cut Jimmy Carter a little slack and pay attention to his remarks.

Jesus’ moral agenda is summarized in Luke 4:18-19.

Unfortunately, U.S. Christians in general and Baptists in particular have neglected it, especially the part about prisoners.

That was the observation of former President Jimmy Carter in a video interview with EthicsDaily.com last week at the Carter Center.

“I don’t think there is any doubt but that Luke 4:18-19 describes Jesus’ moral agenda,” said Carter. “That part of Luke best encapsulates in a very brief way the entire thrust of Jesus’ ministry.”

“I think of all the several facets describing Jesus in Luke 4 about his own moral agenda, the one we have neglected most, and violated most, is the release of the captives, that is prisoners,” he said. “We’re going backward, not forward” in terms of the prison issue in the United States.

He lamented the nation’s “eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” approach to punishment.

“Unfortunately, led by some Christian leaders, our country has gone from a basic philosophy of rehabilitation of a prisoner to a punishment only – and the more severe and extended the punishment,” the better it is, he said.

“And this has resulted in the massive increase in America exclusively of the number of people serving prison sentences,” said Carter.

The World Wide (Religious) Web for Wednesday, June 15, 2011


This summer, the General Council of the Assemblies of God will vote on a proposal to consolidate the three nationally owned schools in Springfield, Missouri: AG Theological Seminary, Central Bible College, and Evangel University. Dr. George O. Wood, who serves as AG general superintendent (and is my dad) outlines the proposal in the video below:

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Consolidation Proposal for Springfield Resident…, posted with vodpod

More information on the proposed consolidation is available here.

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In “Anthony Weiner and the National Adultery Ritual,” Kay Hymowitz writes: “Far from a vestige of American prudery, then, the National Adultery Ritual is best understood as a modern protest in behalf of women against the persistence of male infidelity in an age of equality.” Read the whole thing.

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“Nigeria’s violence political, not religious, says Muslim leader.” If you’re on the wrong end of the stick, does it matter what the stick-wielder’s motivation is?

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Make sure to read Scott Yenor on “The Family’s End” and “The Family: What Is To Be Done?” in which he battles against the notion that marriage is merely a contract between two individuals.

Marriage has contractual moments, but it ultimately, as Hegel writes, supersedes the point of view of contract as the individuals lose their identity by becoming members of the family. A healthy culture recognizes this and laws create a fertile space for such mutual self-giving. It is difficult to see how a healthy marriage culture can exist until we recover the language of self-giving to reflect its continuing reality in our lives. The language of contract is not sufficient to that experience.

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“Demonize the opposition, chapter 666”: about how the media portrays opponents of same-sex marriage, of course.

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“Can Government Get Out of the Marriage Business?” Contra Ron Paul, evidently not.

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“I Am Second.” Inspiring videos from people who have decided to live for God and others rather than for themselves.

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“The Perennial Brain-Mind Gap.” In which Raymond Tallis argues that “neuroscience cannot–not just has not yet, but cannot–explain consciousness itself.”

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“Jesus for Jews”: on the resurgence of Jewish interest in Jesus.

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“Too Late for Apologies: Three Steps the U.S. Bishops Should Take to Prevent Another Sexual Abuse Scandal.” Good advice!

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Don Carson, Tim Keller, and John Piper on pastoral succession plans.

The World Wide (Religious) Web for Wednesday, June 8, 2011


 

“Are You Smarter Than Anthony Weiner?” I certainly hope so. But Russell D. Moore provides a timely reminder about temptation and self-deception:

Almost every adultery situation I’ve ever seen includes a cheating spouse who honestly believes that he or she is not going to get caught. The cheater often doesn’t want the marriage to end in divorce. Instead, like the characters in today’s headlines, he or she instead wants to keep everything the same: spouse, kids, and lover too. That’s irrational and completely contrary to the way the world works. Anyone can see that.

But you can convince yourself…or be convinced…that it will work for you. You’re special, after all. That’s the way temptation functions. We put consequences out of our minds, both temporal and eternal consequences. We start to believe that we are gods, with power over good and evil and life and death. And then we do crazy things.

This doesn’t have anything to do with intelligence. Satan is hyper-intelligent. And yet, even knowing that he will ultimately have his skull crushed, he rages all the more against Christ and his people, “because he knows his time is short” (Rev. 12:12). In terms of the most basic principles of military strategy, that’s crazy. What we need is not intelligence, but wisdom. Wisdom includes seeing where the way I want to go will lead (Prov. 14:12).

I don’t know who you are, reader, but I know you are probably not smarter than Anthony Weiner or Arnold Schwarzenegger or John Edwards. And neither am I. Both of us, you and I, are on the verge of wrecking our lives. We’re probably not on the verge of a situation quite like any of those men, but the gospel tells us we have vulnerabilities just the same, and they all can lead to destruction.

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“What Sarah Palin Got Wrong—And We Did, Too.” If we’re going to criticize politicians, might as well be bipartisan about it.

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“Christian Conservatives flock to Michelle Bachmann.” You have to love this line from Haley Barbour: ““There’s only been one perfect person that ever walked on this earth. And there ain’t gonna be another one in this election.”

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“Perry’s Planned Prayer Event Riles Critics.” Though, truth be told, it doesn’t take much to rile them.

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Is a vote for Romney a vote for “a false and dangerous religion”? Hard to argue with the “false” part, though dangerous seems a bit of a stretch.

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“Must Christian Voters Choose Between Ayn Rand and Jesus?” Let’s see: an avowed egotist who created a cult of personality around herself or the Savior of the world… So (a) yes and (b) the choice is obvious.

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“1919 signed letter contains Hitler’s first known stance on Jewish ‘removal.’”

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“Religious art: fig leaf or full frontal?” How about a suit and a tie?

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“Americans Still Believe in God.” In other news, the pope is still Catholic.

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 “World soccer officials defend hijab ban after Iranian team forfeits match.” My guess is that most of the women don’t want to wear hijabs either, but they have to in order to play for the national team. Solution: Let them play!

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