Review: Frederick Douglass

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Frederick Douglass: Prophet of FreedomDavid W. Blight. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2018.

Summary: Perhaps the definitive biography of this escaped slave who became one of the most distinguished orators and writers in nineteenth century America as he for abolition and Reconstruction and civil rights for Blacks.

There is no simple way to summarize this magnificent biography of Frederick Douglass. Douglass lived an amazingly full life captured admirably in these 764 pages from his birth, likely conceived by a white plantation owner, to the attempts to break him on Covey’s plantation, his quest to learn to read, and discovery of the power of words, his escape, and rise as an orator and writer, advocating first for abolition using the narrative of his own slavery, and later for full rights of blacks, even after the failed promise of Reconstruction and the rise of Jim Crow. He traveled relentlessly on speaking tours throughout his life, and was walking out the door of his home to speak when he collapsed and died of a heart attack. He wrote prodigiously, editing two newspapers and authoring his autobiography in three successive versions.

We could explore his oratorical greatness. Blight liberally quotes excerpts of his most famous speeches giving us a sense of the power of his rhetoric. We could trace the growing fault line between William Lloyd Garrison and Douglass, who differed on whether abolition would come through moral suasion or violence. We could explore his efforts to launch his own newspaper, struggling along for many years until closure. Blight uncovered editions of previously lost copies that enabled him to render a fuller account of the paper than previous biographers.

His later career reflected the tensions of trying to support Republican efforts at Reconstruction, only to condemn the eventual compromises and erosion of protections under the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments that exposed Blacks to lynching, suppression of voting rights. It exposed him to criticism from younger activists. At one point late in his life, he serves as an honorary representative of Haiti, a country in which Africans had thrown off the yoke of their white French oppressors.

Blight also traces the familial struggles Douglass faced. Wanting a family when he had been stripped of one in childhood, he married Anna, a free woman, who did not share his love of words and the public limelight. She made a household in Rochester that sheltered fugitive slaves, radicals like John Brown, and eventually, her children’s families, as well as Frederick’s sophisticated white women friends Julia Griffiths Crofts, and later Ottilie Assing, who may have been something more to than that to Douglass. Assing even stayed for months at a time. Awkward? Perhaps, but we hear nothing of it from Anna, Awkward and distressing as well were the failures of their children, including his daughter’s husband. Part of the reason for Frederick Douglass’s unremitting lecture tours was the necessity to support this growing brood unable to be self supporting. This was an irony for one who prided himself on his self-sufficiency.

Frederick Douglass was a fighter, from the plantation to the Baltimore docks to the lecture and convention circuit. No one fought more passionately for Black civil rights. He fought until the day he died. The fact that the fight has had to be picked up by Ida B. Wells, W.E.B. Dubois, Howard Thurman, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Barack Obama, and still endures makes the case that it is not for lack of fighting and arduous effort that we still seek King’s dream. Rather we need to pay attention to a larger American story of a country that has continued to struggle and fail to live up to its ideal of “liberty and justice for all.” To read this biography of Douglass is both to marvel at the vision and drive and relentless fight for freedom of this man, and to grieve for the generations of compromises and lost opportunities that are the story of this country. It suggests that progress can only occur when Black prophets of freedom like Douglass are joined, generation after generation, by Whites who advocate for the nation’s ideals with the relentlessness of Douglass. Douglass never gave up on the possibility of liberty and justice for all, including his own people. And neither should we.

Review: Faith and Science at Notre Dame

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Faith and Science at Notre DameJohn P. Slattery. Notre Dame, IN: Notre Dame Press, 2019..

Summary: A study of the life of Catholic priest and science professor at Notre Dame, and his clash with the Vatican over his writing on evolution.

Many of us are far more familiar with the clashes between fundamentalists and scientists over evolution beginning with the Scopes trial and continuing to the present day. In the latter part of the nineteenth century, even as this conflict was developing in fundamentalist circles, there was a parallel conflict within the Roman Catholic Church.

One of those on whom the conflict centered was Fr. John Zahm, a Catholic priest from Ohio, educated at Notre Dame, ordained to the priesthood and recruited to teach chemistry and physics at Notre Dame. Highly esteemed, he was named a vice president of the university, speaking widely representing the university, and publishing works ranging from Sound and Music to Evolution and Dogma, an outgrowth of popular lectures on “Science and Revealed Religion.” He was granted a pontifical doctorate, a recognition of his distinguished accomplishments.

His contention throughout was that an embrace of evolutionary theory, if not joined to metaphysical naturalism, need not be seen in conflict with either the biblical account of origins or of God as creator. Zahm went so far as conceding the descent of human beings from the apes, while affirming the divinely bestowed soul that made humans distinct.

And then came the notice from the Congregation of the Index that he was to submit and retract his work and that his publication would be publicly censured. Even as this is unfolding he was appointed provincial of the Congregation of the Holy Cross, vigorously advocating for Notre Dame and for a grand vision for the university.

Friends advocated for the reversal of these efforts but were only partially successful. Zahm agreed to retract French and Italian translations of his work and no longer teach on evolution. Sadly, this spelled the end to a promising career in Caholic higher education. He lost re-election as provincial, and never taught or occupied an administrative post again at Notre Dame. He continued to research, write, and travel, including accompanying Teddy Roosevelt on one of his expeditions.

John P. Slattery’s new book recounts Zahm’s biography and explores the dynamics that set up the clash between Zahm and the Church. He attributes to the very different intellectual cultures that formed Zahm and those in the Congregation of the Index, and particularly Fr. Otto Zardetti. For Zahm, the influences, while reflecting traditional theological formation, centered in his training as a scientist in the empirical tradition spanning the tradition from Francis Bacon to Charles Darwin. He drew on a tradition in reading the Church Fathers from Augustine through Aquinas that did not set faith against observational study of the physical world.

Father Otto Zardetti and key figures like the Jesuit Kleutgen, in the Congregation of the Index, were shaped by a Neo-Scholasticism that arose as a response to modernism that advocated for a return to an Aristotelian approach to science that reached conclusions about the world from first principles rather than empirical observation. The Congregation promulgated the Syllabus of Errors and laid the basis for the doctrine of papal infallibilty.

Slattery draws upon archives of both Fr. Zahm’s work and the Vatican to analyze the clash in which Fr. Zahm found himself caught up. He also includes translations of the Syllabus of Errors and Zardetti’s correspondence. In doing so, he helps us understand how such a distinguished scholar and university leader ended up sidelined as the Church wrestled with its response to modernism and scientific advances. Much like the fundamentalists, they engaged in a form of intellectual retreat rather than the intellectual engagement advocated by Zahm. Unlike the fundamentalists, they used ecclesiastical power to suppress a line of scientific inquiry, and sadly, the career of Fr. John Zahm.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary advanced review copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: The Gospel According to Eve

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The Gospel According to Eve, Amanda W. Benckhuysen. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2019.

Summary: A history of women who have written on Genesis 1-3 since the fourth century, treating their worth, education, their roles as wives and mothers, whether they may teach and preach, and as advocates of social reforms.

One more book on women and issues of biblical interpretation? Yes, but the reason you want to add this book to your library is that Amanda Benckhuysen has done something I’ve not previously seen. She has dug through history and found over sixty women spanning the time from the fourth to the twentieth century who have written on Genesis 1 to 3, either in works focused on interpretation of these passages, or works that reference the passages. [The work also includes one paragraph biographies of the women mentioned in this work in the back matter.]

Why is this important? When it has come to the interpretation of Genesis 1 to 3 with regard to women, most of the work through history has been done by men. For many, the focus has been on the deception of Eve, and the authority or dominance of men over women. While some of these women have taken similar approaches to Genesis, Benckhuysen shows that long before the contemporary discussion, women have been looking at Genesis 1 to 3 and many have reached very different conclusions that anticipate contemporary findings.

A few that stood out to me:

  1. Many women interpreters focus on Genesis 1 that presents men and women equally as made in the image of God. The only stated dominion is over the other creatures.
  2. In the Genesis 2 account, interpreters noted the creation of woman from Adam’s side, an image of partnership. God forms her separate from Adam so that she has a relationship with God before being brought to Adam, who recognizes her as a helper (ezer), the same language used of God’s help of his people. Nothing in the text indicates any inferiority of Eve to Adam, who celebrates Eve as like him in flesh and bone.
  3. While many interpreters read Eve as the one leading Adam astray in the fall, these interpreters suggest other motives to Eve, including Adam’s benefit in growth in knowledge. Instead of putting all the blame on Eve, they note Adam’s culpability, particularly if Adam was present, as the text suggests. What these interpreters emphasize is that each bears responsibility equally in this tragic episode.
  4. In Genesis 3:14-19, these interpreters noted that only the serpent was cursed. Many observe that the statements about men and women are descriptive of the consequences of the fall, not prescriptive of role relationships as God meant them to be.

Benckhuysen organizes the book around the way women interpreters who had insights like those above applied these to concerns of women of their day. She begins with tracing the interpretations of the early fathers of the church and subsequent interpreters. She then considers how women used the material on Eve to advocate for the worth and dignity of women when they were treated as chattel, how they advocated for greater educational opportunities for women, befitting their equal status with men and how they wrestled with Eve’s story as they considered the role of being a wife and mother.

Benckhuysen considers women as teachers and preachers of the gospel. One of the things that mark interpreters here, and elsewhere, is their canonical approach to scripture, interpreting scripture by scripture, noting not simply prohibitions, but the many examples of women in both Old and New Testament of women preaching and leading God’s people, all with the apparent approbation of God. We are introduced to Margaret Fell, a seventeenth century interpreter, along with other seventeenth century millenarian writers: Antoinette Bourignon, M. Marsin, and Rebecca Jackson. She considers the contribution of Deborah Peirce and Harriet Livermore, who speak of the gospel being entrusted to women, and Catherine Booth and Francis Willard, whose careful exegetical work defended the role of women in preaching. This is an example of the pattern followed in each chapter.

Concluding chapters focus on the representation of women in children’s Bibles and literature and the contribution of women to this literature, and the use of Genesis 1 to 3 in advocacy for social reforms in working conditions and opportunities, suffrage, and advocacy against the exploitation and abuse of women. The last two chapters consider the history of patriarchy in the church and the value of listening to these interpreters from other times. These women both questioned the foundations for patriarchy that male interpreters established in Genesis, and offered cogent alternatives. They used this to advocate for the flourishing of women in the home, the church, and the wider society, and against the ways they saw their sisters being abused in these different spheres.

Someone might argue against this gendered reading of Eve. But isn’t that what men have been doing for two millenia, often to the great harm of women and to the church? Benckhuysen doesn’t argue that women’s reading is superior to men. The truth is, her women vary in their interpretations and disagree, just as do men. Rather, what was striking to me was to listen to their collective voices through history as a man and to realize that they see things we have missed. We need their voices if we are truly to hear the whole counsel of God in this very important area of how men and women live together, upholding each other’s dignity, worth, and gifts as image bearers of God, and experiencing the redemptive work of Christ in relationships marred by the Fall, but intended for better.

Review: Fearfully and Wonderfully


Fearfully and Wonderfully: The Marvel of Bearing God’s Image (Updated and combined edition), Dr. Paul Brand and Philip Yancey. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2019.

Summary: A new edition combining two classic works exploring both the wonders of the human anatomy, the value and dignity of every human being, and parallels with the functioning of the body of Christ.

Thirty years ago Dr. Paul Brand and writer Philip Yancey teamed up on two books exploring the wonders of the human body, Brand’s medical practice and its affirmation of the human dignity of even some of the most physically unapproachable and parallels to the body of Christ. I never had a chance to read these works but every person I met who hand raved at the beauty of these works. Now, thirty years later, and having read a new edition combining these two works, I am ready to join the chorus of those who praise the fruit of this collaboration. This writing about how fearfully and wonderfully made is indeed wonderful.

Brand’s distinctive work up until his death in 2003 was his work among those with leprosy, and his critical insight that began with his first encounter with a leper that the insidious part of the disease was its destruction of nerve endings that transmit pressure and pain. Deformities, particularly in hands and feet result from repeated injuries that occur because people don’t feel the pain of fire, or wounds from tools or knives or implements, or even the turning of an ankle. Much of Brand’s work as an orthopedic surgeon was operating on misshapen hands and feet, eyelids, noses, and restoring function and form.

One of the beauties of this work was the power of treating those who suffered from these deformities as persons of great dignity. At one point the book describes an incident where Brand was assuring a leprosy patient that they could arrest the disease with medication and restore some movement. As he did so, he made what he thought a joke as he put his arm around the young man’s shoulder, and the young man began to sob. Brand discovered that the man was crying because no one had touched him for many years.

Another part of the beauty of this book lies in the descriptions of the wonders of the human body. He describes the incredible diversity of cells that make our bodies, and how they all share the same set of instructions on their chromosomes. He describes how normally functioning bodies distribute stress and adjust when tissues are expose to repeated stress. Lepers, who cannot feel, do not. He explores various bodily systems: skin, blood, respiration, bone, and muscle, sensory nerves and brain. So much that we are unaware of reflects incredibly complex and efficient systems to sustain, protect, and heal our bodies.

The third beauty of this book is the insights drawn from our physical anatomy to a parallel Body–the Body of Christ.Brand describes the primitive but effective techniques of vaccinating people using the lymph of previously vaccinated persons to vaccinate others, protecting them from and overcoming deadly illnesses like smallpox. Then follows a spiritual insight into what it means to overcome by the blood of the Lamb, blood that overcomes the infection, and effects of sin.

Descriptions of the wonder of human anatomy, the dignity of every human being and the healthy functioning of Christ’s body weave through this work. These lessons all have one end–to help us understand what it means both individually and collectively to be image bearers, the embodied representations of God and Christ to the world. I came away from reading this work with a profound sense of wonder and thankfulness for the function of my body in all its parts and its whole. The very act of typing these words is a wonder, involving thought, brain centers dedicated to each of my fingers, visual impulses from my eyes, all woven together. How wonderful it is when one works with a team of believers, using our various gifts and skills toward common goals, accomplishing far more together than any of us could individually. Brand and Yancey not only open my eyes with the wonders they describe and their spiritual parallels, they encourage me to look for these wonders in my own life and the world around me, fostering what an embryologist friend describes as doxological fascination, a rather fancy way of describing “fearfully and wonderfully.” That seems to me to be a rather wonderful way to live.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.


Review: Make Way for the Spirit

Make Way for the Spirit

Make Way for the SpiritChristoph Friedrich Blumhardt (edited by Wolfgang J. Bittner, translated by Ruth Rhenius, Simeon Zahl, Miriam Mathis, and Christian T. Collins Winn. Walden, NY: Plough Publishing, 2019.

Summary: A reflection on the ministry of Johann Christoph Blumhardt by his son, identifying both the continuity, and divergence of their convictions.

Christoph Friedrich Blumhardt had to fill large shoes. His father Johann Christoph Blumhardt had been at the center of a great awakening around the village of Mottlingen, and a later ministry at Bad Boll, that Christoph took over at his father’s death. It began with the deliverance of a young woman from demonic powers and resulted in the repentance of many villagers, especially from occult practices as well as other sins, and the introduction by Johann of granting absolution, which had a profound effect. Johann weathered critical scrutiny and criticism by church authorities, walking a delicate boundary of exercising a Spirit-directed and empowered ministry while submitting to church strictures. Another Plough publication, The Awakening (reviewed here), describes that ministry, with its rallying cry, “Jesus is victor!” in much greater detail.

One of the underlying ideas of this book is the forward moving work of the Spirit of God throughout history. The problem, as Blumhardt, the son, sees it, is that people often do not won’t to go on with the Spirit. Instead of an empowered, apostolic church defeating the powers of darkness, the church substituted structures and creeds and institutional power while remaining Christian in name.

What happened at Mottlingen illustrated both. There was a resolute struggle against the dark powers, and real breakthroughs in the advance of the kingdom in the lives of the people of Mottlingen. Yet according to Johann Blumhardt, ultimately people sought spiritual and physical healing apart from completely giving themselves to the cause of God. They sought their own comfort rather than the kingdom and righteousness of God,

While Johann admires much in his father’s life, particularly his steadfast obedience to the Lord’s leading, he faults him for being too eager to please both the people who came to him, and the church authorities, when for the sake of the ministry of the Spirit, they should have been resisted. He also describes three hopes his father entertained, that he affirms, and three false staffs that led to the disappointment of those hopes in his father’s time:

  1. The hope of a new and continuing outpouring of the Spirit. The false staff was the visible church, whose structures were not able to receive the outpoured Spirit.
  2. The hope for God’s Zion, a “city” to which the nations would stream. The false staff was mission that spread the gospel without building up Zion.
  3. The hope for the defeat of death on earth and the false staff was personal salvation and a hope of heavenly bliss that saw death as a pathway rather than the last enemy.

This last was something I had serious questions about, even though I appreciated the emphasis on a ministry of life focused on bodily resurrection. He rightly points to ways we too easily give way to death in both our physical and mental dispositions. And certainly in our own day, we witness a culture of death about which many Christians are relatively complacent. But if I’m reading Blumhardt right, it seems he believed the defeat of death on earth, without mention of the return of Christ and the resurrection, a real possibility, albeit one thwarted by wrong belief. Blumhardt’s references are somewhat allusive, and this was one point where I wish I could have asked him to tell me more, because it seems what he proposes is unorthodox at this point.

Some of the most challenging parts of this book have to do with the issue of progressing so far and then stopping, settling rather than continuing to make way for the Spirit. Connected to this is an embrace of comfort rather than a passion for the rule of God being extended, what he refers to as Zion. There is also some insightful observations about the link between physical and spiritual healing and how this should be approached in pastoral care.

What Blumhart does in his reflection on his father’s ministry, and the Spirit’s bidding for his own work, is explore the question of why awakening or revival does not continue to flourish and grow. He explores both the inner and outer dynamics that have an impact. The editing and compiling of Blumhardt’s papers into this volume (one of the reasons it may seem repetitive at points) is a gift to those who both study and seek revival. Along with scholars from Jonathan Edwards to Richard Lovelace, this study offers rich resources for those who seek to prepare both themselves and the people of God for such awakening work.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Bookmarked


Bookmarked: Reading My Way from Hollywood to BrooklynWendy W. Fairey. New York: Arcade Publishing, 2015.

Summary: A literature professor who is the daughter of a famous Hollywood columnist writes a memoir interweaving her life with significant books and characters.

“I want to write of the private stories that lie behind our reading of books, taking my own trajectory through English literature as the history I know best but proposing a way of thinking about literature that I believe is every reader’s process. We bring ourselves with all our aspirations and wounds, affinities and aversions, insights and confusions to the books we read, and our experience shapes our response.”

In Bookmarked, Wendy W. Fairey draws upon her own life, both experienced and in books, as an illustration of this thesis. The daughter of famous Hollywood columnist Sheila Graham, she grew up in a home with one of many Graham’s lovers, F. Scott Fitzgerald, who selected books for Graham, a “College of One.” Reading through Fitzgerald’s books started her on a lifelong journey with books, books that helped make sense of her life.

In David Copperfield, she sees in brutal Mr. Murdstone the violent male paralleling “Bow Wow,” one of her mother’s lovers. She takes us through Jane Eyre and Vanity FairDaniel Deronda, Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Henry James The Portrait of a Lady, Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, Forster’s Passage to India, and more recent authors from India.

She intertwines four themes from these various books, also paralleling her life–the orphan, the new woman, the artist, and the immigrant. As she does so, she traces her own discoveries that her mother was a Jewish orphan (not unlike Daniel Deronda) and that her true father was British philosopher A.J. Ayer. She takes us through the ups and downs of her marriage to Donald Fairey, her own self-discovery as a woman in academia, and her love affair and eventual marriage to Mary Edith Mardis. She reflects on Lily Briscoe in To the Lighthouse as well as “Tonio Kroger” in Thomas Mann as she recalls her affair with Ezio Tarantelli. She considers the immigrant experience as she recounts her travels in India and growing familiarity with Indian, ex-pat Indian, and Indian-American writers.

As we read, we listen to a skilled literature professor critically reflect on issues of class and gender, even as she also considers her own life. We read someone who both thoughtfully engages books on their own terms, and yet not in a way detached from her life. She both reads these books with her life, and in some respects, finds the books reading her.

At times I wondered if all of this might be considered a bit self-indulgent. And then I reflected on the self-indulgence that is reading–an exercise in which we both lose ourselves, and sometimes find ourselves as well, making sense of ourselves, our lives as we have lived them thus far, and perhaps making some sense of our world. Isn’t this, as she contends, “every reader’s process”?

The book made me wonder what books I would use in narrating my life. It clearly would be a different shelf of books than the author’s. But I have no question that there were books that resonated with my experiences, and others that served to shape and crystallize my understanding of the world. It is an exercise I would like to pursue further as time allows.


Review: How Reason Can Lead to God

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How Reason Can Lead to GodJoshua Rasmussen. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2019.

Summary: Argues for a “bridge of reason” that leads us to God, based on the foundation of reality.

I’ve never believed that one can prove the existence of God. At the same time, I believe it can be shown that faith in God is reasonable, rather than contrary to reason. I also would acknowledge that some propose that it is reasonable that there is no God. All I’ve ever been able to commend is that the sincere seeker of truth weigh these reasons, and act upon whatever is persuasive to them.

This is a book that lays out a reasonable argument in the form of a “bridge of reason.” The image is important because the author would argue that reason rests upon a foundation and the nature of the foundation both makes sense of our reason and is persuasive of the existence of a God at the foundation or source of all.

First of all, he argues for the self-sufficiency of reality and that this foundation meets nine possible objections. This self-sufficient reality is eternal, that is it never came into existence but is the source of all that exists. The tools of simplicity, explanatory depth, and uniformity point to a “purely actual” foundation that is a unity without gaps or limits. Furthermore, this foundation explains the existence of mind, matter, morals, and math (that is, logic or reason). Indeed, this foundation may be argued to be the perfection of these from which all derives, and hence a perfect foundation.

Rasmussen then considers problems with this foundational theory. The greatest, as in almost every argument for the existence of God is the existence of evil. Here, he argues for the possibility of God having good reasons for the existence of evil, particularly as a result of the creation of “kingly creatures” able to govern their own lives with the possibility of ruling badly. He devotes a chapter to this objection, and then an additional chapter to eight other objections.

He finally pulls all of this together through an argument from limits that points to the existence of perfection. He states:

Here is an idea: perfection–by the light of its simplicity and positivity–points to its own possibility (i.e. consistency). Something cool follows: by the logic of possibility, perfection must be instantiated. In this way, perfection points by its own nature, to its instantiation.

He works out this argument step by step in more or less non-technical but closely reasoned language. A person with training in logic will especially appreciate Rasmussen’s presentation, and perhaps also pick it apart! Certainly those who question the existence of reality, or our capacity to perceive reality beyond ourselves would have difficulty with his argument. However, I suspect they also have trouble with existence, because they act as if other minds, and other objects exist.

I am not a philosopher but it seems to me that he does something fairly novel. His is neither a cosmological or ontological argument for the existence of God. It is something like a Cartesian argument from reason, yet focuses on the foundation of existence that our capacity for reason is based upon.

One question I had was around his argument for the self-existence of the “blob of reality” at the foundation of all. I’m not quite sure of how Rasmussen distinguishes God and created reality. It seemed at least possible that his argument could give warrant for panentheism, the idea that all is in God, an idea not considered within orthodoxy by many Christians.

Rasmussen does not contend for this and I think he does a service both for skeptics, and for apologists in proposing yet another line of reasoning rooted in reason itself and our common experience, for the reality of God. I’ll be interested to see how his ideas are received among philosophers, and how he continues to develop his “bridge of reason.”


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.


Review: Wolf Pack

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Wolf Pack (Joe Pickett #19), C. J. Box. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2019.

Summary: Strong-armed by the F.B.I. from prosecuting illegal drone activity, and confronting a drug cartel’s killers known as the Wolf Pack, Joe Pickett is challenged to protect a community and those he most loves as deaths mount.

It all began with the drone. Game wardens Joe Pickett and Katelyn Hamm try to investigate an illegal drone operator who is causing the death of wildlife. As they get close to prosecuting the offender, they are shut down by strong arm F.B.I. operatives from New York. What is more troubling is that the offender’s son is dating Pickett’s daughter Lucy.

Meanwhile there is a vicious group of contract killers headed Pickett’s way, after a brutal killing in Arizona connected to the mysterious residents being protected by the F.B.I. in Pickett’s town. Known as the Wolf Pack, each of the four are methodical killers, but the scariest is a woman, Abriella, seductively attractive one minute, and utterly cold-blooded in killing the next. As events unfold, she becomes the leader of the Wolf Pack.

Their target is “Mecca” who turns out to be our drone pilot in witness protection. As Pickett and his friends begin to connect the dots, the Wolf Pack closes in. Falconer Nate Romanowski sees them roll into town and suspects something foul. Innocent people start turning up dead. As Katelyn, Joe, Nate, a prosecutor, a career F.B.I. agent, a judge, and a sheriff piece together what is going on, they in turn are recognized as dangerous witnesses. They become targets as well with the reader wondering who will come out of all this alive and what will happen to Pickett’s daughter and her boyfriend and Nate’s expectant partner, who all end up in the the climactic confrontation with the Wolf Pack out of which not all will survive.

I’ve heard from other friends who love crime fiction that C.J. Box is a great read. I concur. This was the first of his novels I’ve read (the nineteenth in the series), and I could not put it down. It is not only the rising sense of tension, but the growing sense of appreciation one develops, even in a single work, of the character Joe Pickett. He’s a country game warden who outsmarts New York rogue F.B. I. agents, who is relentless in the execution of his job of protecting wildlife and enforcing game laws, while utterly loyal to his friends. He’s a survivor with a former governor as his defender, helping him get his job back.

Equally, in Abriella, Box creates a truly sinister character, one whose bloodlust is fueled by revenge against all the men who raped her, so scary in the mercurial turns of her temper that even her fellow Wolf Pack members fear her. What will happen when Pickett and Abriella finally face each other, as the reader knows they will?

Review: Holy Disunity

Holy Disunity

Holy Disunity: How What Separates Us Can Save UsLayton E. Williams. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2019.

Summary: Proposes that difference ought be viewed as gift rather than problem, that difference, and even disunity, as messy as it is in the church, can be a source of growth.

Within the Christian community, the existence of difference, disunity, and division is viewed as problematic. These seem to betray the oneness, the unity of the body of Christ of which scripture speaks. Layton Williams makes the argument that difference, disagreement, and sometimes even division, is a gift. She roots her argument in the Trinity where three distinct persons exist as one being. She argues that we do not create unity but that we are one, and this is a unity that does not obliterate difference but treats it as a gift.

Williams observes that often our strategy is to suppress difference and the undesirable in the various forms it takes, which she unpacks chapter by chapter: doubt, argument, tension, separation, vulnerability, trouble, protest, hunger, limitations, failure, and uncertainty. Often, our posture is to try to act as if these things don’t exist, or address them with over-simplistic solutions, or to normalize a certain position to the exclusion of others. Worse yet, we often marginalize, demonize, and dispel those who persist in honestly differing. By the same token, sometimes we sacrifice deeply held convictions and perspectives to “keep the peace.”

Instead, she contends:

We don’t have to fear difference. Difference–our own and others’–is how we know who we are. It’s how we distinguish ourselves. Our own unique place in this universe and the experiences and qualities that define us allow us to interpret the world around us and make our own particular mark on it. The world is the way it is–different from how it might otherwise have been–because of us. It’s also different because of others. The ways that others are different from us, their unique experiences and qualifications, expose us to new ways to understand the world.

Each of her chapters explore how the various facets of difference save us. Each includes a reading of a biblical text that develops her position. In the chapter on tension, she contends for the hard work of wrestling with tension with a discussion of Jacob’s night of wrestling with God in human form, emerging both blessed with a new name, and limping. Difference often means walking into hard things that both leave their marks on our lives and lead to growth and greater self-understanding.

There is an important autobiographical element running through the narrative that makes Williams wrestling with and embrace of difference significant. Williams self-identifies as LGBTQ, and with other “out” LGBTQ Christians. Her own perspective of the gift and “holiness” of difference emerges from her own experience of growing up in a home, and a church in the South where she both experienced deep love, and yet also deep pain as neither could fully embrace her LGBTQ identification. In a chapter on “the gift of separation” she writes movingly about what this has meant for her and her mother:

It isn’t that I don’t wish, deeply, that my mother and I could be equally at peace in the same church. It’s that I know that it takes at least as much love and commitment to look in the face of one of the people you care most about in this world, and to know that at this time you cannot be theologically reconciled, and to let them go to pursue faith in a way that doesn’t prevent you from doing the same, hoping all the while that your paths might one day come together. For all the ways we disagree, my mother and I have both done that for each other.

I was impressed with the perspective that allowed for the possibility of disagreement and even separation, whether of individuals or church bodies, while also allowing for the possibility of continued love and charity toward one another. It is a perspective that refuses to diminish or disrespect the theological commitments of either, without minimizing the disagreement, or allowing the disagreement to degenerate into rejection of, vitriol toward, demonizing of, or hatred of the other. This note is exceedingly rare and welcome in what has often been a hurtful area of contention within the contemporary church.

The question I might pose would be how far would the author extend her argument about difference within the church? How would she have responded to the differences in the church in the United States around the issue of slavery? How would she respond to an embrace by the church of a nationalism that diminishes the value and worth of other human beings and obligations as Christians to them, as occurred in Nazi Germany? Is difference always a gift? And if not, by what criteria ought such difference be deemed unacceptable; not a gift but a matter for repentance and re-formation?

At the same time, I found much that resonated deeply. Allowing room for doubt and dispelling the false god of certainty has been a vital part of ministry among university researchers. Getting further on in life, I recognize the gifts of limitations and failure. When people can be more vulnerable in a bar than among the people of God, this challenges the church with the question of what we must become to be places where people can truly disclose themselves. As a cis-gender heterosexually oriented male who might identify more closely with the theological commitments of the author’s mother, it was illuminating and important for me to listen to and sit with this LGBTQ woman’s journey and to see the church through her eyes. I needed to read of her fears and hopes, and to be challenged with the call to love across our real differences, and to believe with the author that even in the mess of the moment, “[w]e can trust that God is at work.”


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary advanced review copy of this book from the publisher via LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers program in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Trinity Without Hierarchy

Trinity without Hierarchy

Trinity Without HierarchyMichael F. Bird and Scott Harrower, eds. Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic, 2019.

Summary: Engaging the American theologians who argue for eternal and functional relationships of authority and subordination in the Trinity, the contributors uphold a traditional, Nicean orthodoxy of recognizing the oneness of God, who is three equal and distinct Persons without hierarchy or subordination.

In recent years, a group of American evangelical theologians have burst on the scene contending for what some term “eternal functional subordination” (EFS) of the Son to the Father, or “eternal relationships of authority and submission” (ERAS) within the Trinity. The theologians making this contention are what is known as “complementarians,” rooting their understanding of authority and submission in male and female relationships in what they see are similar relationships within the Trinity.

This proposal has been challenged as problematic in terms of Trinitarian orthodoxy, and while not intending any of these things, opens the door to tritheism or forms of Arianism and semi-Arianism. [As one who has worked in multi-faith contexts, I believe this perspective also offers ample fodder for Muslim apologists.] While it is true that in the economic out-working of the Triune God in our salvation, the Incarnate Son obeys the Father, it is another move altogether to assert that this reflects the essence of the relationships within the immanent Trinity. There is also the problem of analogs between human relationships and the intra-trinitarian relationships.

The contributors of this book argue for what they understand is the orthodox articulation of the nature and relationships of the Triune God, as formulated in the Nicean-Constantinopolitan councils. Editor Michael Bird writes:

   The central thesis of this book is that the evangelical consensus, in keeping with its catholic and orthodox heritage, affirms that the Trinity consists of one God who is three distinct and equal persons, and the distinctions do not entail subordination or hierarchy. As such, this volume tries to do two things. First it constitutes a robust restatement of Trinitarian orthodoxy with special attention paid to a non-subordinationist and non-hierarchical account of the relationships within the Godhead. Second, it attempts to wrestle the doctrine of the Trinity away from the trenches of American evangelical debates about gender and authority.

One fact that is important to note in this work is that contributors differ on gender and authority roles, with some being egalitarians and some complementarians. Both argue for a Trinity without hierarchy.

The sixteen chapters in this work divide into three parts. The first part of the work considers biblical perspectives on the Trinity, particularly in engaging in close exegesis of contended passages in John, 1 Corinthians 11, Hebrews, and Revelation. Beginning with chapter 5, contributors write on the insights to be gained from historical theology for the present discussion with Peter Leithart considering Athanasius, Amy Brown Hughes focusing on Gregory of Nyssa, Tyler Wittman considering Aquinas and the subsequent Reformer: Turretin, Polanus, and Owen, and what their work delineated as to what could and could not be said about the inner life of the Trinity. Other writers focus more deeply on John Owen, the work of Protestant “scholastics,” and Wolfhart Pannenberg. Chapters 12 to 16 then engage the current debate more directly, including a lengthy critique of Bruce Ware’s methodology by co-editor Scott Harrower.

The final chapter, also by Harrower, was a succinct summary of why all this matters. He notes that semi-Arian tendencies in the 18th century church led to anti-Trinitarian and unitarian formulations over the next two centuries. His contention is that theological cultures have intergenerational impacts that the framers of subordinationist theologies must also consider.

I was impressed with the consistent careful scholarship, the fine-grained discussion pressing against the limits of human grasp of the nature of the Triune God. Nearly every chapter concluded with two to three pages of bibliography, evidence of a resurgence of trinitarian theology. The discussion also both gave me a deep appreciation of the importance of the Nicean-Constantinopolitan formulations regarding the Trinity and yet raised the question of whether this must, or will always be the church’s reference point. At very least, any new formulations must avoid the errors these formulations address. And here it seems, according to these authors, subordinationist theologies of the Trinity are not a step forward, building on the councils, but a step back.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.