Review: The Road to Serfdom

The Road to Serfdom (Fiftieth Anniversary edition), F. A. Hayek. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995 (originally published in 1944, link is to the 2007 Definitive Edition).

Summary: An argument that collectivist, planned economies lead to the erosion of individual liberties, the rule of law, and result in the rise of totalitarian governments.

It is probably not insignificant that F. A. Hayek, an economist who grew up and was educated in Austria, emigrated to England in 1938 and wrote this work during World War Two. He later moved to the United States. This book, less a work on economics than political philosophy, is an argument for the classic (not contemporary) liberal ideal that emphasized the rights and initiative of the individual, a limited role for government, a relatively unrestrained marketplace, and the rule of law. His basic argument is that the shift he was seeing from this liberal ideal to socialist, planned economies in England reflected the same course that he witnessed in the rise of National Socialism in Nazi Germany and Communism in the Stalinist Russia.

He argues that planned economies can never plan for all the variables of the marketplace, that those who buy and sell goods and services can more nimbly respond to. Planning undercuts the initiative of the individual and leads to increasingly authoritarian forms of government, required to enforce the efforts needed toward economic plans. Instead of seeking equality in liberty, the collectivist system achieves equality through restraint and servitude. These increasing coercive efforts result in the arbitrary use of authority rather than the rule of law. Paradoxically, even the poor are less free under such a system.

The question is who ultimately occupies the role of planners. Hayek offers a telling critique of the idea of the “common good,” which often remains undefined. And often, this happens to be the worst among us, those who are not constrained by moral restraints or concerns about truth. Perhaps the most chilling chapter in this work is the one titled, “The End of Truth,” reminding one of the “Post-truth era” in which we live. Authoritarian rulers develop their own myths to justify their rise to power and rule. Instead, all the channels used to spread knowledge are pressed into service to “strengthen the belief in the rightness of the decisions taken by the authority” (p. 175).

Hayek does allow a role for government in a capitalist economy, not in restricting trade but in regulating methods of legal production, sanitary and safe practices, the protection of environmental resources, and preventing fraud. He also allows a basic level of economic and health security as a concern of government.

It strikes me that Hayek’s fears of planned economies have not been realized in the socialist countries of Europe. My own sense is that what has occurred instead is an enlarged role of government to protect us from recessions, economic cycles, the consequences of shifts in the marketplace, and even personal misfortunes. This diminishment of the individual and dependency does leave us vulnerable to Hayek’s feared authoritarianism and the eclipse of the rule of law.

What troubles me in Hayek’s liberal ideal of individual liberty is that such systems are often blind to the inequities baked into the system, protecting individual liberty for only some who are citizens. Furthermore, these systemic inequities leave capitalist economies vulnerable to being supplanted by more planned economies that offer a vision of equality for the disadvantaged.

Nevertheless, Hayek’s critique of “planning,” of the rise of coercion, of the justification of means to achieve ends, the rise of authority and the suspension of rule of law, and the jettisoning of truth are all important to consider in our day. Hayek’s concern in looking at Nazi Germany was the recognition that it could happen in socialist England. While I suspect that there are more variant roads to totalitarian, Hayek’s recognition of the important elements of liberal democracy are worth attending to, as is the recognition that should we neglect these elements, it can happen here as well.

Review: How to Be a Patriotic Christian

How to Be a Patriotic Christian, Richard J. Mouw. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2022.

Summary: Navigating the space between Christian nationalism and national cynicism, explores how Christians might properly love country within their primary allegiance to Christ, focused around civic kinship and responsibility.

At least in the U.S. setting in which Richard Mouw writes, there often seems to be no middle ground between some form of Christian nationalism and a deep cynicism about any national loyalty. Mouw has navigated this ground over the course of his life, from his days as an “angry young man” protesting Vietnam and racial injustice up to the present, including experiences of tears while touring the American cemetery in Normandy and being present at a Holiday Bowl concert a few days after 9/11. He has wrestled with what the Christian’s primary allegiance to the global kingdom of Jesus means in the context of being a citizen, He invites us to wrestle with him as we consider the possibility and character of being a patriotic Christian.

He describes the basic character of this patriotism early in the book when he writes:

“But patriotism is not just about our relationship to specific government policies and practices. It is about belonging to a community of citizens with whom we share our political allegiances–and even more important, our common humanness. Patriotism is in an important sense more about our participation in a nation than it is about loving a state” (p. 14).

What Mouw argues for is our “civic kinship,” our sense of peoplehood with those who constitute our nation. He proposes that the Boy Scouts are an example of a program in civic kinship, cultivating the kind of character required in our public life with a concern for the place and the people with whom we live. He notes the evidence of the decline in the societal bonds among us and our increasing isolation from each other, and the necessity, in our season of tribalism, to cultivate room in our hearts for those with whom we differ. He appropriates John Calvin’s language of contemplating our fellow human beings in God, not in themselves.

Mouw’s focus on peoplehood and civic kinship calls into question what Mouw considers to be the role of the state. He contends that the preamble of our Constitution actually offers a good delineation of the primary tasks of government: 1) to establish justice, 2) to ensure domestic tranquility, 3) to provide for the common defense, and 4) to promote the general welfare and to secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity. He notes the parallel with Psalm 72 in these four tasks. He cites the Catholic idea of subsidiarity, that higher authorities should not undertake what lower authorities, or even private associations or individual citizens can accomplish, which requires civic responsibility rather than dependence on government authority.

Against some who either implicitly or explicitly believe Christians ought to pursue a theocracy, Mouw supports the idea of our democratic republic, with its protections of differing beliefs rather than compelling uniformity. He believes this creates the space for people to change beliefs of their own, respecting the image of God in human beings. How then do we disagree in a plural society? Mouw encourages active patience (as God has acted toward us), genuine engagement with those with whom we disagree, and an openness that believes all truth is God’s truth, to receive that truth from wherever it appears.

How then should we think of expressions of patriotism within the confines of our church buildings, everything from the presence of flags to the recognition of national holidays? Some would see this as a form of idolatry, or perhaps offensive to those visiting from other countries. Mouw recounts such a conversation where he pushes back, contending that symbols like the flag can remind believers of their Christian calling as citizens, and that Christians in other countries may understand this because of their love for their own countries. Remember, he invited us to wrestle together–there is wrestling going on here! Likewise, there is the need to do careful pastoral teaching–what does it mean to seek the peace and prosperity of the people among whom we live (Jeremiah 29:7) while recognizing our primary allegiance to Christ and that we are part of a global people?

This leads him to consider our patriotic songs, many which invoke the blessing of God, and other civic observances with religious overtones, such as our various pledges and oaths. Is this just an invidious form of civil religion or something the Christian can embrace. Mouw notes the good of an acknowledgment of the transcendent, to which the nation is both accountable and on which it depends.

He concludes this work with four guidelines: 1) to do the work of contemplation to see people in the light of God, 2) to cultivate compassion, 3) to go deep in our quest for rootedness, in Christ, in our place, with our people, and 4) to trust Jesus, in whom are met “the hopes and fears of all the years.”

This is not a massive treatise on Christian political philosophy but a concise work of pastoral theology on what it means to love Jesus and love one’s country, particularly the United States. I affirm his restrained view of the role of the state, an absence of any language of getting the “right” people in office, and his focus on our own civic kinship and responsibility as citizens to pursue the shalom and prosperity of the place where we make our earthly home. His own unashamed expressions of his love of country and solidarity with its people reminded me of similar experiences. Most of all, I appreciate Mouw’s articulation of this rich third way of being patriotic Christians that offers an alternative to the unsatisfying and miserly binary on offer in so much of our national discourse.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher.

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Isaac Powers

Unknown artist, The Isaac Powers Farm (circa 1830), The Butler Institute of American Art

If you live in the south side, you are familiar with Powers Way, rising from Poland Avenue and running to Midlothian Boulevard. The Powers family name traces its roots back to the beginnings of Youngstown. Actually, Isaac’s father, Abraham Powers, living in Pennsylvania’s Ligonier Valley chased a band of Native Americans who had killed a settler. Their pursuit took them all the way to Mahoning County where they exchanged fire at an encampment alongside the Mahoning River, then continued pursuit all the way to the Salt Springs, turning back when they learned that a number of tribes had gathered in a council. The story is significant because that encampment where they had exchanged fire became the site of the Powers farm on the south side of the Mahoning River, above what became Poland Avenue, southeast of the town center of Youngstown, and across the river from where Daniel Shehy settled.

Isaac Powers was born on April 12, 1777 in Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania to Irish-American parents, Abraham and Phoebe Powers. When John Young purchased the land from the Connecticut Land Company, Isaac Powers and Daniel Shehy undertook the survey of the area. Later on, Isaac Powers was working with Phineas Hill to explore and survey Mill Creek when they came upon the falls where Lanterman’s Mill was eventually located. They immediately recognized the potential of the site. Hill purchased 300 acres of land around the site and contracted with Powers to build the first mill, which was completed within the 18 months John Young had stipulated in selling the land.

Like many early founders, he fought in the War of 1812. He also served terms as a Township Trustee and as a Representative in the Ohio State Assembly

Grain mills were not the only millwork Isaac Powers was involved in. In 1846, Powers was one of the proprietors in the Youngstown Rolling Mill Company, the first finishing mill in the Mahoning Valley making products other than iron bars. It operated until 1855 when it sold to Brown, Bonnell, and Company, making it one of the leading iron works in the country.

Powers was a religious man and, along with his wife Leah, was part of the founding class of six in 1803 under the ministry of Dr. Shadrack Bostwick, that formed the nucleus of Trinity United Methodist Church, still a presence in downtown Youngstown. He was “noted as a faithful and earnest worker in the church until his death.” He also played a role in the formation of the Methodist society in Coitsville, donating the land on which the church was built.

The Powers farm, which Powers and his father sited on the location of the old encampment occupied much of the land east of Pine Hollow and between there and what became Powers Way, running south most of the way to the township border, what is now Midlothian Boulevard. In the early days of Youngstown as a township, the farm was one of four locations to have a school house. He was one of the first to heat his home with coal. The painting above, by an unknown artist, hangs in the Americana and Folk wing of the Butler Institute of American Art. It shows a brick home, an office building, a carriage house, and a home owned by one of his sons.

Powers Estate Cemetery” photographed by Dave Smith for Find-a-Grave

Isaac Powers died May 9, 1861 at the age of 84. He and his wife are buried in the Powers Estate Cemetery, which may be found at the end of Pine Hollow Drive and Lennox Avenue, overlooking Interstate I-680. It had been neglected and overgrown but through the efforts of Dr. John White, an anthropology professor at Youngstown State, and a volunteer team, the cemetery was restored.

I could not find nearly the material on Powers that exists for John Young, James Hillman, Daniel Shehy or other Youngstown founders. Yet he played an important role in Youngstown’s beginnings, surveying the township, helping establish the site of Lanterman’s Mill, contributing to the beginnings of Youngstown’s iron and steel industry, creating a flourishing farm, and devoting himself to civic and religious concerns. He was part of that first generation that came together to build a city.

To read other posts in the Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown series, just click “On Youngstown.” Enjoy!

Review: Soonish

Soonish: Ten Emerging Technologies That’ll Improve and/or Ruin Everything, Kelly and Zach Weinersmith. New York: Penguin Press, 2017.

Summary: A cartoonist and scientist team up to look at ten emerging technologies and the challenges, both scientific and moral, that are involved in bringing these into existence in the “soonish” future.

There are an abundance of futurist scenarios about technological innovations on the horizon that will change, and perhaps, enhance our lives. In this fun and informative book, a scientist and cartoonist team up to explore ten of these technologies, the challenges involved with realizing them, and some of the challenges they may pose for us. In a text that explains these technologies in easily grasped language and amusing cartoons that accompany the text, the authors explore these emerging technologies:

  • Cheap access to space
  • Asteroid mining
  • Fusion power
  • Programmable matter
  • Robotic construction
  • Augmented reality
  • Synthetic biology
  • Precision medicine
  • Bioprinting
  • Brain-computer interfaces

Each chapter explains the current state (in 2017) of the technology, the challenges to its realization, how it might make things terrible, and ways it might make things wonderful.

Under challenges, I learned how expensive it is to get anything into space, how difficult it would be to build a space elevator that would reduce this cost, the challenges of transport and radiation with asteroid mining, the difficulty at present of developing a fusion reactor that puts out more energy than involved in making it work, the problems with large scale robotic construction–contractors can still build a house more cheaply, the privacy issues of augmented reality and medical information, and the difficulties in bioprinting anything more complex than thin layers of tissues.

Under terrible outcomes are the environmental impact of all that rocket fuel, the dangers of moving asteroids into earth intercepting trajectories creating an extinction event, that fusion will always remain in the future because of how hard it is to do, that programmable matter can be hacked, that control of augmented reality falls in the wrong hands, that synthetic biology creates killer organisms, and the use of brain-computer interfaces in manipulative ways.

The other side is wonderful outcomes including space exploration, various mineral resources, cheap and clean fusion power, “smart” construction and objects, and new versions of organs entirely compatible with our bodies because they are based on our genetic materials, greatly extending life, and cures for cancer and neurological diseases.

There has always been this double-edged character to technology. The Weinersmiths help us think beyond the ballyhooed technologies and a wonderful new world to the challenges and possible downsides. They do all this with a light touch that neither sees technology as a panacea nor to always be shunned. As in the past, there are challenges to be surmounted as there were in the past–some which seemed insurmountable, until solutions were found. In some areas, it is surprising how much progress has been made–precision medicine for example.

The greatest challenge then seems the human one. We have both the capacity for great good and unspeakable evil and no technological advance promises to change that. We also are not always very good at predicting the unintended effects of what we do and often our technological fixes only solve one problem while creating others. Perhaps at best, we can be aware of these things and not think we will be better, smarter, or more prescient than our predecessors. Sometimes a bit of humility is a good thing.

The Month in Reviews: November 2022

This Month in Reviews is a cornucopia filled with good books of various sorts. I began the month with a book on foreknowledge and free will. There were a variety of other religious books on transformation, the Herods, orthodoxy, art and new creation, a commentary on Revelation, a book on why women leave the church, and a biography of theologian John Gerstner. Celeste Ng’s Our Missing Hearts topped my fiction reads–a haunting book I’ll be thinking about for awhile. I also read a classic James Baldwin, and another Alleyn and a Rostnikov mystery–for some reason the older I’ve gotten, the more I enjoy a good mystery. My non-fiction reads included a different take on our climate discussion, a history of the Depression contending that Roosevelt’s actions may have prolonged it, a book on math errors in the real world, and how the algorithms of social media engagement have intensified our social divides. And I read a 75 year history of one of my favorite book publishers, a story that includes a number of friends, past and present.

God in Eternity and TimeRobert E. Picirilli. Nashville: B & H Acacdemic, 2022. A case for libertarian freedom without forgoing belief in the foreknowledge of God, rooted in how God acts and reveals himself in creation. Review

When in Rome (Roderick Alleyn #26), Ngaio Marsh. New York: Felony & Mayhem Press, 2015. Alleyn goes undercover on a Roman holiday tour led by a sketchy tour guide suspected of drug smuggling and other corrupt activities and ends up collaborating in a murder investigation. Review

Heart. Soul. Mind. Strength. Expanded edition. Andrew T. LePeau & Linda Doll, edited by Al Hsu. Foreword by Jeff Crosby and Robert A. Fryling. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2022. A narrative history of this evangelical publishing house, a division of a campus ministry, upon the publishing house’s seventy-fifth anniversary. Review

Humble Pi: When Math Goes Wrong in the Real WorldMatt Parker. New York: Riverhead Books, 2020. An exploration of all the ways we use (and misuse) math in the real world, and the ways our calculations can go badly wrong. Review

The Forgotten Man, Amity Shlaes. New York: MJF Books, 2008. An account of the Depression years, focusing on why the Depression lasted so long, and the impact it had on so many different kinds of “forgotten men” and women. Review

Having the Mind of ChristBen Sternke and Matt Tebbe. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press/Formatio, 2022. Looks at the changed paradigms one must understand to experience deep and lasting change in our lives. Review

The Herods: Murder, Politics, and the Art of SuccessionBruce Chilton. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2021. A history of this dynasty, tracing its rise from Antipater, the rule of Herod the Great, and his descendants who struggled to recover control over the territories he ruled amid Roman power and rising Jewish discontent. Review

Go Tell It on the MountainJames Baldwin. New York: Vintage Books, 2013 (originally published in 1953). An account of John Grimes fourteenth birthday, centering on his brother Roy’s stabbing, his estrangement from his father, and the Saturday night “tarrying service” at a pentecostal church, revelatory of the lives of those around John and his own “salvation.” Review

The Thrill of OrthodoxyTrevin Wax (Foreword by Kevin Vanhoozer). Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2022. Spirited advocacy for orthodox belief as vibrant, broad, crucial in the battle before us, and for the renewal of God’s people. Review

ClimaturityMarc Cortez. Morro Bay, CA: Wise Media Group, 2022. An argument for a more transparent and measured climate discussion, avoiding either scare tactics or denialism. Review

The Chaos MachineMax Fisher. New York: Little, Brown, and Company, 2022. A deep dive into how social media has rewired our minds and fueled social divisions. Review

The Art of New Creation (Studies in Theology and the Arts), Edited by Jeremy Begbie, Daniel Train, and W. David O. Taylor. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2022. Contributions from a variety of artists and theologians from the 2019 DITA10 Conference at Duke Divinity School, focusing on how the theology of the new creation shapes the work of Christian artists in various fields. Review

A Fine Red Rain (Porfiry Rostnikov #4), Stuart M. Kaminsky. New York: Mysterious Press, 2012 (First published in 1987). When two of three high wire artist die, one by suicide, one by “accident,” Rostnikov suspects more, little realizing the reach of the KGB into this case while his friends Sasha deals with black marketers and Karpo pursues a serial murderer of prostitutes. Review

Our Missing HeartsCeleste Ng. New York: Penguin Press, 2022. Bird Gardner and his father spend life trying not to be noticed, even as Bird wonders about his mother, the stories she told, why she left them, and where she has gone in a country that turned against her poetry even as one phrase became a rallying cry for all those separated from their children. Review

Revelation Through Old Testament Eyes (A Background and Application Commentary) Tremper Longman III, series editor Andrew T. LePeau. Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic, 2022. A running commentary of the book of Revelation that focuses on the Old Testament background running through the book, along with material that goes deeper on the Old Testament material relating to different themes and the structure of the book as well as its contemporary application. Review

Reason to ReturnEricka Andersen. Colorado Springs: NavPress. Forthcoming (January 17) 2023. A book directed to believing women who have left the church looking at the reasons why they have left and reasons why they should consider returning, both for what they may gain and what they may give. Review

John Gerstner and the Renewal of Presbyterian and Reformed Evangelicalism in Modern America (Princeton Theological Monograph Series), Jeffrey S. McDonald. Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2017. A biography of church historian, apologist, and theologian John Gerstner exploring his impact on theological education, the Presbyterian denominations of which he was part, and the wider evangelical and Reformed movement. Review

Best Book of the Month: I chose Heart. Soul. Mind. Strength. simply because I’ve personally been deeply impacted by the books published by InterVarsity Press and found the story of the growth of this publisher compelling. And, as I mentioned above, it’s a book that includes a number of friends. This may not have been everyone’s choice, but if you know this publisher and have read books by the likes of John Stott, Francis Schaeffer, J. I. Packer, Susan Stabile, Ruth Haley Barton, Tish Harrison Warren and many others, or have commentaries or reference books from IVP, you will find the stories behind the books of interest.

Best Quote of the Month: Trevin Wax’s The Thrill of Orthodoxy argues that there is great joy to be found in the foundational truths of Christianity. I loved this image of orthodoxy as an ancient castle:

“Orthodoxy is an ancient castle with spacious rooms and vaulted ceilings and mysterious corridors, a vast expanse of practical wisdom handed down from our forefathers and mothers in the faith. Some inhabit the castle but fail to sift through its treasures. Others believe the castle stands in the way of progress and should be torn down. A few believe the castle’s outer shell can remain for aesthetic purposes, so long as the interior is gutted. But in every generation, God raises up those who see the value in the treasure, men and women who maintain a deep and abiding commitment to recognize and accentuate the unique beauty of Christian truth so that future generations can be ushered into its splendor” (p. 9).

I had the privilege of interviewing the author and, if you are interested, you can watch it on YouTube:

What I’m Reading: I’ve just finished reading Soonish, a fun read on ten emerging technologies and the challenges we face bringing them to life. I also finished a thought provoking book by Richard Mouw on How to Be a Patriotic Christian. I’m reading F.A. Hayek’s classic The Road to Serfdom, arguing for the classical idea of liberty, the individual, and the rule of law against state planning, collectivism, and the arbitrary uses of authority that can lead to totalitarian forms of government–fascist or communist. I have another Ngaio Marsh going, Swing, Brother, Swing, a book on the idea of salvation as abundant life in a holistic sense, and the classic work that spawned the inductive Bible study movement, Robert Traina’s Methodical Bible Study. I was a product of this training and came to love the Bible because of it but had never read Traina’s book. Finally, I think Louise Penny’s latest, A World of Curiosities, is supposed to arrive today. I read through her whole series during the pandemic and can’t wait to read her latest!

The Month in Reviews is my monthly review summary going back to 2014! It’s a great way to browse what I’ve reviewed. The search box on this blog also works well if you are looking for a review of a particular book.

Review: John Gerstner and the Renewal of Presbyterian and Reformed Evangelicalism in Modern America

John Gerstner and the Renewal of Presbyterian and Reformed Evangelicalism in Modern America (Princeton Theological Monograph Series), Jeffrey S. McDonald. Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2017.

Summary: A biography of church historian, apologist, and theologian John Gerstner exploring his impact on theological education, the Presbyterian denominations of which he was part, and the wider evangelical and Reformed movement.

I heard John Gerstner speak over 50 years ago at the youth Bible Studies of the New Wilmington Missionary Conference. This gruff scholar spoke with passion about the parables. I cannot say I remember what he said, but it was clear that here was someone who was passionate about the Bible. Years later, I listened to him on tapes from the Ligonier Valley Study Center, arguing for the inerrancy of the Bible at a time this was an issue under much discussion. He was also a strong influence on two of the ministers of the church in which I grew up. I have to say I’ve not thought much about him since until reading this biography, which both impressed me with the reach and impact of his scholarship and underscored the journey away from an evangelical faith of the PCUSA, from which, late in life he resigned his membership.

The biography begins with some of the formative influences in his life: the UPCNA (United Presbyterian Church North America) church in which he grew up, one adhering to evangelical doctrine, his conversion and early formation at Philadelphia School of the Bible, his studies under John Orr at Westminster College, which persuaded him of the importance of rational, evidentialist apologetics. After a brief stint as a student at Pitt-Xenia Seminary, then associated with the UPCNA, he went to Westminster Seminary, still reflecting the influence of J. Gresham Machen, the modernist versus fundamentalist “Presbyterian Controversy,” where he was shaped by the Old Princeton theologians who had shaped Machen’s resistance to liberalism.

The subsequent chapters of the book trace Gerstner’s career by decades. The 1950’s witnessed his rise as an evangelical scholar, both at Pitt-Xenia and more broadly. He led a movement, along with Addison Leitch to renew the evangelical stance of the seminary. This was interrupted by the merger of the UPCNA with the United Presbyterian Church to form the UPCUSA. Gerstner opposed this merger on theological grounds, as well as the subsequent merger of Pitt-Xenia and Western Seminary, both in Pittsburgh, to form Pittsburgh Theological Seminary (PTS).

In short order, the moderates and liberals from Western asserted their influence at PTS. McDonald traces the disillusionment Gerstner felt when Leitch abandoned ship. Throughout the 1960’s, he continued to defend an evangelical faith, supporting a group of evangelical students, while continuing to work as “loyal opposition” within the denomination. Two cases in the 1970’s gave him pause, even as he advocated unsuccessfully in both instances. One was the Kenyon case, denying ordination to a pastor who did not believe in the ordination of women to church leadership positions and the other, the Kaseman case resulted in the ordination of a pastor who denied the full deity of Christ. For a time, Gerstner considered the denomination apostate.

As Gerstner failed his efforts to preserve orthodoxy within his denomination, his ministry broadened in other ways. He taught courses at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, exposing a broader audience to Reformed thought. He spoke increasingly about his Jonathan Edwards scholarship contending for a direct line between Edwards and the Old Princeton Theology. And his teaching, particularly about biblical inerrancy spread widely through the influence of the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy and the Ligonier Valley Study Center, led by one of his former students and mentees, R.C. Sproul. Sproul championed Gerstner’s work and brought him to the attention of a much wider audience. One failure that marred his scholarship was his inability to transcribe the texts of Jonathan Edwards sermons as editor of for that volume of the Yale edition of Edwards’s works, resulting in his removal from the project in 1977. At least part of the issue was his inability to do the critical work necessary, given his high estimate of Edwards.

In the 1980’s, Gerstner retired from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary but spoke and lectured widely. Despite being removed from the Yale project, he brought attention to Edwards in a variety of settings and helped shape the growth of Presbyterian and Reformed evangelicalism in the newly formed Evangelical Presbyterian Church and the Presbyterian Church in America, joining the latter denomination in 1990. He kept up an intense schedule of teaching and also edited a three volume work on Jonathan Edwards. McDonald describes this as poorly edited and flawed in many ways but also offering many original insights into Edwards work.

I always pictured Gerstner as a theological pit bull. This biography offers a much more nuanced view. He was beloved as a teacher by many of his students and deeply shaped many including Sproul. It is clear that he was shaped by the aftermath of the fundamentalist-modernist controversies of the 1930’s and determined all his life to preserve the theological integrity of the church, a losing battle in his own denomination. What is striking from this biography is that he remained a faithful churchman and theologian in that denomination so long despite the losses, remaining the gentleman, even though he could be fierce in debate.

It strikes me that he was both teacher and apologist for an evangelical faith and one wonders what might have happened had he devoted, or been capable of devoting greater energy to his Edwards scholarship. Yet even so, he prepared the way for the resurgence of Edwards studies that we are seeing to the present day. Likewise, he offered theological sustenance to the newly formed Evangelical Presbyterian Church and the Presbyterian Church in America, two bodies that offset the decline in mainline Presbyterianism. McDonald’s biography offers a great service in remembering this distinctive voice who left his mark in so many Presbyterian and Reformed circles and in the wider evangelical community.

Review: Reason to Return

Reason to Return, Ericka Andersen. Colorado Springs: NavPress. Forthcoming (January 17) 2023.

Summary: A book directed to believing women who have left the church looking at the reasons why they have left and reasons why they should consider returning, both for what they may gain and what they may give.

Ericka Andersen states in the introduction to this book that over the last decade that 26 million women left the church. In this work, Andersen explores the reasons behind that departure, especially given the benefits of church participation, particularly lower rates of depression. She then offers reasons for believing women to consider returning and that this is a call worth pursuing

She discusses the various reasons women have left: the desire for more, not enough time, not needing the church to relate to God, ways one has been hurt, the mess of one’s life, and politics among them. I was particularly interested with how she would deal with times when the church has hurt or abused, which would be one of the most difficult of instances under which to consider returning. She tells a story of a woman who struggled with how she was treated over her divorce but is on a slow journey back. She quotes Rachel Denhollander who says “I don’t trust the Church, I trust Jesus….Jesus is worth fighting for, so His Bride is worth fighting for.” Andersen discusses how Jesus knows one’s hurt, having also been hurt by the religious–murdered no less. She recognizes both the struggle, and that struggling against the abuses is worth it. She suggests we are detoxing, and the key is to find churches doing it well.

She then turns to reasons to reconsider. While we can have a personal relationship with Christ, the church offers the supportive structures to sustain our spirituality. When we have questions, even if we’ve been dismissed by some churches there are others who will walk with us as we search. Churches call us out of our comfort zones and good ones stick with us when it gets messy. They address our loneliness crisis and contribute to our mental well-being. The church becomes a place where we belong–and that cares for our kids.

The third part of the book focuses on why the call to return is worth pursuing–and really, why the Bride is worth fighting for. The church is mean to be a place of authenticity, not for the righteous but for sinners. She argues for searching for the right space and place, including examples of alternative communities like biker churches and microchurches. She contends that church people overall are more generous–that those who give to the church are more generous toward secular causes as well and benefit the wider society. The rituals and liturgies give us images and language for our faith. We should also not be dismayed if the church seems in decline in some parts of the West because of its vibrant global growth

She concludes with what I think is her foundational argument: “The church of your past isn’t the church of your future.” She summarizes her case with five reasons:

  1. It is incomplete without you.
  2. Your personal growth matters beyond you.
  3. Your encouragement is important.
  4. The local church needs your help to “make disciples.”
  5. You are the only one with your perspective.

We do not simply need the church but it needs us. We find our healing and wholeness as we use what we’ve been given to seek that in others.

One thing I appreciate in Andersen is balance. Balance between facing what is wrong with the church and what may just be wrong with us. Balance between facing the world’s criticism of the church and not acceding to the world’s lack of hope for the church. Balance between recognizing how a church community may play an important role in our growth and how we have an important role in fighting for the purity and wholeness of Christ’s bride.

One thing that might have been helpful in her appeal to look for good churches would be to talk about the signs of toxic churches and the signs of healthy ones. For those who have only known the toxic, they may not be able to recognize the healthy, or believe that such exists. Some of this is implicit in what she writes–it might have been helpful to make it more explicit rather than just encourage people that good churches are out there.

This is a book written toward women but addresses many concerns, other than how men have abused women either emotionally or physically, shared by men and women alike. The loss of so many women from our congregations ought concern both men and women, especially among those leading congregations. It is worth using this book as a mirror to observe what we see of ourselves and what may be done to see our churches become places to which women will feel both drawn to and safe in. Will they find in us reason to return?


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher.

Review: Revelation Through Old Testament Eyes

Revelation Through Old Testament Eyes (A Background and Application Commentary) Tremper Longman III, series editor Andrew T. LePeau. Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic, 2022.

Summary: A running commentary of the book of Revelation that focuses on the Old Testament background running through the book, along with material that goes deeper on the Old Testament material relating to different themes and the structure of the book as well as its contemporary application.

There is a school of thought that tries to read the book of Revelation and relate it to the events of the present day, a trend I’ve observed for fifty years, requiring many revisions in interpretation. This commentary, part of the “Through Old Testament Eyes” series, looks back, providing a running commentary of the Old Testament texts to which many of images and metaphors allude or draw upon. There is probably no New Testament book where this kind of commentary is more necessary, and Tremper Longman III admirably fills this need.

First of all, Longman offers a running, verse-by-verse commentary, offering Old Testament background on references in the text. The commentary is scholarly but not technical, accessible for a lay reader. Just one example, from “Look, he is coming with the clouds” (Revelation 1:7). Longman recalls the ancient Near East background of cloud riding deities, particularly storm clouds, which he believes in view here (cf. Psalm 18:9; 104:3). He cites the prophesy of Isaiah against Egypt in Isaiah 19:1-2 of God coming against them on a swift cloud, and similarly toward Nineveh in Nahum 1:3. He then focuses attention on the vision recorded in Daniel 7:13, where we have God both as Ancient of Days and coming “like a son of man” on the clouds.

These commentaries also incorporate sections called “Through Old Testament Eyes,” stepping back from the text. Following the above commentary, Longman offers an extended discussion of Daniel, as the other instance of extended apocalyptic writing in scripture. He observes that parallels in both where present evil will be overcome with God’s final victory. Where Revelation differs is that it reflects the already and not yet experience of the church having witnessed the resurrection of the son of God yet awaiting his final victory.

There are a number of “What the Structure Means” articles throughout the text as well. One of the most helpful was his discussion on the Seals, Trumpets, and Bowls, noting Bauckham’s observation that “the seventh-seal opening includes the seven trumpets and the seventh trumpet includes the seven bowls.” He argues that they are not sequential, but spiraling cycles moving toward the end. He notes the interludes and the significance of the seventh in each series–silence followed by earthquakes and lightning after the seventh seal, a vision of the heavenly temple and the ark along with more lightning, thunder, and earthquakes, and after the seventh bowl all of these with a severe earthquake.

Finally the commentary offers “Going Deeper” sections connection the commentary to application. For example, on “Perseverance of the Church: Revelation 11” focuses on the faithful testimony of the two witnesses who represent the church. They are killed by the beast from the Abyss but raised by God to heaven. Later, the pregnant woman, also representing the church is pursued by Satan but twice escapes harm. Finally, in Revelation 19, we have the vision of the wedding supper of the Lamb after the fall of Babylon (Rome). Longman notes how the churches to which John wrote faced persecution, and these words have encouraged the church whenever she has faced oppression, marginalization, and adversity.

One comes away from studying this commentary aware afresh of the seamless garment that is scripture. The Old Testament illumines so much of Revelation, furnishing the stock of metaphors John draws upon in relating his visions, while uniquely expanding upon them. Rather than getting caught up in prophecy chart, Longman invites us to get caught up in the Lamb who was worthy, the victory of God, the defeat of evil, and the enduring hope this offers the people of God of John’s day and throughout the ages down to our own.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher.

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Old Fashioned Christmas at Lanterman’s Mill

Charles Dwyer, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Do you remember going to Lanterman’s Mill for the Old Fashioned Christmas when you were young? I don’t. Our memories are of taking our son there some time probably around the early 1990’s, during a visit back to Youngstown over Thanksgiving weekend. We were there during one of the early years of what became a Youngstown tradition, dating back to 1988. It began as a craft fair and became the “Old Fashioned Christmas” in the early 1990’s.

We walked from the parking lot and our first sight of the Mill as we walked under the bridge was of a big wreath on the front of the building and smaller wreathes in all the windows. The Mill looked like a scene out of Currier & Ives, particularly with the falls next to the Mill and the covered bridge in the distance.

One memory that stands out was discovering what chestnuts roasted over an open fire actually tasted like. Tastes are all different, but that one time was enough for me. Indoors there were tasty foods you could buy, Christmas crafts and artisan crafts persons, and a beautiful Christmas tree decorated as it might have looked when the mill was in operation. Of course you could also look at all the other exhibits as well as the machinery of the Mill.

There was entertainment including a hammered dulcimer player. We thought the sound of the dulcimer was so cool that we bought a cassette of hammered dulcimer music (remember cassettes?) that is still one of our favorite collections of Christmas music. We also bought a Christmas ornament of Lanterman’s Mill. I found the cassette but the ornament is buried somewhere in our house.

Old Time Country Christmas” (which you can still find at Amazon), a wonderful memory of our visit to Lanterman’s Mill.

The highlight for the kids was a chance to meet Santa and receive treats from him. It was a magical day for all of us, recalling both the wonder of Christmas celebrations through a child’s eyes, and reminding us of one of the scenic treasures of Youngstown.

The Old Fashioned Christmas at Lanterman’s Mill, as I write in 2022, is now in its 35th year, and all the things that we loved about it when we went are still there (I don’t know what kind of entertainment they will have this year). It is Saturday and Sunday, November 26 and 27, 2022 (the Saturday and Sunday of Thanksgiving Weekend each year), 11 am to 4 pm. And because it is a giving season, visitors are invite to bring a new hat, scarf or a pair of mittens to decorate the “Giving Tree” for children in need in the Valley. If you have questions, you can call the Ford Nsture Center at 330-740-7116. And the best part. It’s FREE!

Our visit to the Old Fashioned Christmas at Lanterman’s Mill is one of our treasured memories, brought back every time we listen to that cassette. If you’ve been there, what are your favorite memories? And if not and you are in Youngstown, maybe this is the year to make some memories, maybe with the kids or grandkids, or maybe just with someone special.

By the way, as an extra treat, I thought I’d share this video of Joshua Messick playing “Carol of the Bells” on a hammered dulcimer in a setting not unlike Lanterman’s Mill. Takes me back…

To read other posts in the Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown series, just click “On Youngstown.” Enjoy!

The Indies First Campaign

This Saturday, November 26, is Small Business Saturday. While big box stores may sell it cheaper and online sellers more conveniently, small businesses learn what their own community needs and offer personalized service and recommendations to help customers find what they need. And after a pandemic of depersonalization, that personal touch means more than ever.

Not only that, small businesses make our communities good places, replacing the banal sameness of much of our commercial landscape with unique storefronts and signage, walkability, and in many cases, offer gathering places for local events. Small businesses preserve and renew neighborhoods, so important to the fabric of our cities.

Independent bookstores are a big part of that landscape. While Amazon shut down its own attempt to launch brick and mortar stores and is scaling back it inventories of books, independent bookselling has been growing. Indie bookstores offer unique events for every age group and often are a place where new authors get to engage, in a live space, with potential readers and where people get to hear established writers talk about their works (and of course sell signed copies!).

And so it just makes sense that part of Small Business Saturday is the Indies First Initiative, which is now in its tenth year. This is an effort of the American Booksellers Association that begins with authors, encouraging them to volunteer as guest booksellers during Small Business. And it seeks to encourage those of us who buy books to turn to our local independent booksellers for those recommendations rather than a computer algorithm. Coming at the beginning of the holiday shopping season, the booksellers are glad to help you find just the right book for that favorite someone.

This effort was launched by First Nations author Sherman Alexie, who came up with the idea of writers volunteering as guest booksellers and also to link to indies to sell their books online. Over the years, the effort has enjoyed the advocacy of well-known spokespeople and authors including Roxane Gay, N.K. Jemisin, Dan Rather, Jason Reynolds and Cheryl Strayed. This year’s Indies First Spokesperson is Celeste Ng, whose Our Missing Hearts was reviewed at Bob on Books this week. You can view a video where she talks about Indies First. She summed up her appeal in a recent Tweet:

This Saturday, 11/26, is #IndiesFirst. And you know what makes a great holiday present? Books! If you’re not sure WHICH book, the real live people at your local independent bookseller can give you personal recommendations! Just stop in and ask them.

Celeste Ng

The IndieBound website makes it easy to find your nearest indie bookseller. Just type in your zip code, and it can help you find your nearest store in a 10, 50, or 100 mile radius. I even discovered a few nearby stores I did not know about.

So, if you are looking for books for yourself or someone else (or both) this weekend, shop Indies First. Many of the stores will have special events, even special discounts. The IndieBound website can help you find local store websites ahead of time to learn hours and of anything special going on. When you visit, you’ll meet fellow book lovers who care about connecting you with books you’ll love. You may even meet someone who writes books! And you’ll support the small business ecosystem that contributes to the flourishing of your community.