Review: Biblical Leadership


biblical leadership

Biblical Leadership: Theology for the Everyday LeaderBenjamin K. Forest and Chet Roden, eds. Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic, 2017.

Summary: An effort, book by book, to compile the a biblical theology of leadership, written by a team of scholars specializing in study of these texts.

When one surveys Christian publications on the subject of leadership, many seem drawn more from the world of business or the military, with what seems to be a veneer of biblical texts that support, or at least sound like the principles being enunciated. This begs the question of whether there is anything distinctive about biblical leadership? Is the leadership of God’s people in any way different because of the character of God, and the work of Christ, as they have been disclosed to us in scripture?

The editors and the contributors to this text would affirm this, and that the place for us to start, in developing our theology and practice of leadership, is the data of scripture, gathered from Genesis to Revelation. And that is what this work sets out to do. It is not organized by leadership principles or practices, but rather by the organization of the Bible. The contributors were selected for their scholarship on the particular portion of scripture on which they were asked to write.

Both Old and New Testament sections begin with “concept studies” considering the words and concepts used around the concept of “leadership” in the Hebrew and Greek text. Then, subsequent chapters explore books (for example Judges) or sections of scripture (the Penteteuch, the Synoptics).  Occasionally, chapters would zoom in on a particular text, and I thought these were among the gems in the volume. Two examples of these were a study of “The ‘Shepherd’ as a Biblical Metaphor: Leadership in Psalm 23” by Walter C. Kaiser, Jr. and Stanley E. Porter’s article on “Conflict Resolution: Leadership and the Jerusalem Council.” The principles Porter derives from this study are gold:

  • Confront a Problem Early
  • Solicit Widespread Opinion
  • Welcome Diversity of Opinion
  • Render a Clear Decision
  • Impose the Minimum, not the Maximum
  • Seek Scriptural Guidance and Confirmation

This both preaches and practices well! William D. Mounce does something similar in his commentary on the leadership passages within the Pastoral Epistles.

Most of the chapters focus on particular books. A challenge with this approach is reading into the text what is not there or what was intended. Different scholars noted this and took the approach of recognizing the main theme or purpose of the book, and relating observations about leadership, God’s or people’s, good or bad, to those themes. One place where this was done especially well, I thought was Mark Allen and Dickson Ngama’s essay on Daniel that observed the theme of power of Yahweh running through the book followed by seven important leadership lessons. Another example was Edwin M. Yamauchi’s study of leadership in Nehemiah that begins with situating the book in the canon, and in its historical setting, and then observes in successive chapters the character of Nehemiah’s leadership as:

  1. A man of responsibility
  2. A man of prayer
  3. A man who was rightly motivated (by God’s glory)
  4. A man of vision
  5. A man of action and cooperation
  6. A man of compassion
  7. A man who triumphed over opposition

Perhaps one of the most important essays that explored the heart of Christian leadership was W. Hall Harris III’s on “Leading Through Weakness, Vulnerability, and Self-Sacrifice: Leadership in the Gospel of John.” This and other essays engaged the notion of servant leadership, not contesting it but showing the call of servant leaders to suffer, become vulnerable, and in various ways, die, while yet leading, bringing a Christ-centered focus to this concept, and a call to leadership formed by the glory of the cross.

There is so much more in this collection than space permits comment upon. The intent of the authors is not primarily to offer preaching or teaching material, although there is much here that could well be adapted for these purposes. There aim, and that of the editors is more foundational, that pastors and other ministry leaders are formed in their own theology and practice of leadership through the biblical material rather than “best practices” from business.

A few basic themes I observed running through were that leadership is rooted in the character and leadership of God, needs to be shaped by the work of Christ, informed by the teaching of scripture, is characterized by faithfulness to Christ in all matters of life, is not solitary but communal, both in working with teams and developing leaders, and lived at the nexus of being a servant and a shepherd of the people of God.

That gives me a personal rubric to assess my own leadership, which I found myself doing throughout the pages of this treasure trove of leadership insight. I would commend this to anyone who cares both about their own practice of leadership and the development of new generations of leadership for the people of God.


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

Review: The Underground Railroad

The Underground Railroad

The Underground RailroadColson Whitehead. New York: Doubleday, 2016.

Summary: A fictional narrative of a Georgia slave, Cora, who with another slave escapes the plantation, and through a series of harrowing experiences, and the existence of an actual underground railroad with trains and engineers, escapes to the North.

The Underground Railroad has received critical acclaim, winning a National Book Award, a Pulitzer Prize, and being chosen for Oprah’s Book Club. This is a very good book, portraying the brutal realities of Antebellum slavery on cotton plantations, the brutalities of slave owners, overseers, patrollers and night riders, and slave hunters. The character of Ridgeway, the slave hunter, is among the great evil characters of fiction. The protagonist, Cora, is a resilient, even fiercely determined character who will murder more than on of her potential captors, even while both angered and motivated by her mother Mabel, who escaped while she was a little girl and never was caught.

Cora agrees to escape the Randall Plantation with Caesar when Terrence Randall, a tyrant, takes over for his deceased brother.  Caesar has learned from a sympathetic merchant of an underground railroad that will take slaves to freedom. At the last minute, another slave, Lovey, joins in, but is soon captured while Caesar and Cora, who fatally bludgeons a young man attempts to hold her, escape and contact the station master. What they find is an underground railroad that is no metaphor but a vast subterranean rail network with rails, trains, and engineers, built by those engaged in the fight against slavery.

Their flight takes them to South Carolina, where they hide under assumed names in an “enlightened” town educating them for citizen, but with underlying sinister motives. Ridgeway shows up and Cora escapes, but Caesar is taken. Cora arrives unexpected at a closed down station in a North Carolina town on a freedom crusade of lynchings and house searches. Reluctantly, Martin and Ethel Wells shelter her, running a terrible risk. In the end Ridgeway finds her and takes her into Tennessee, where she is rescued by Royal, a militant version of Harriet Tubman. One of Ridgeway’s men is killed, Ridgeway bound and left to die, and they escape to a utopian Freedom Farm in Indiana. But will they be safe even here?

The plot is interrupted by “flashbacks” that fill in content, but felt like an interruption. But the feature that worked the least for me was the railroad. This aspect of the book had a magical realism feel, and just didn’t work for me, but then I’ve never been a fan of this technique/genre. It seems that the main function of the railroad was to get Cora to the next scene of action, where the real interest and the strength of this narrative lay. We see the courage of station masters, to be sure, but the actual journey, the risks run by slaves, and in many cases, rescuers like Tubman seemed to be minimized, even though the title suggests a focus on the railroad. I also found the decisions to stay in South Carolina, and later Indiana, somewhat implausible when all slaves knew their only chance of safety, especially from figures like Ridgeway, was Canada. I might have liked some documentation of sources for the portrayals slave conditions and race hatred, and some comment on what was based on fact, along the lines of what Stowe did in Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

All in all, the  plotline, strong characters, and portrayal of slavery and race hatred make this a good and important work. I think it could be more powerful if it portrayed the efforts of the historical underground railroad. But the portrayal of slavery and racism in this book is important to our nation conversation. To meaningfully, say “never again” we must understand to what we are saying “never again.”


Review: Faith Unexpected

Faith Unexpected

Faith Unexpected, Rick Mattson. St. Paul, MN: Pavement Publishing, 2018.

Summary: The stories of ten people from diverse backgrounds who never expected to find faith in Christ and how they found the unexpected.

For some people, turning to faith in Christ is just not on the radar. They were turned off by the church. It all seems irrelevant to their lives. Or they’ve done too much “stuff” that they could never believe God would forgive. Maybe they’ve just never thought about it.

This is a book of stories of people like this. They come from a variety of backgrounds and life experiences. A Latino macho man. An urban black athlete into parties and women. A liberal arts college feminist. A Native American woman literally haunted by the spirit of her deceased father. A couple of atheists, one nicknamed “Satan” for his knack of de-converting Christians. A secular Korean Buddhist photographer. A military pilot. An Asian American student at UCLA averse to risk. And the author, whose early life consisted of music gigs, golf, and girls.

The stories are as different as the people. For some, an event that can only be described as supernatural played an important part. For others, it was an impulse to attend a church, conversations with a believing friend, a book, even a song. For many, it was multiple influences pointing in the same direction. For most, coming to faith didn’t happen instantaneously. For many, it felt as much that they were found, or that they stumbled into faith, as finding faith.

This is a book that inspires hope. You may find yourself reading and thinking, “if that person could discover a living faith, anyone could. Even I could. Or my friend could.” This makes it a great gift for friends who have shown some spiritual interest. Or if you are wondering what it might look like to believe, here are ten renderings. One might sound a bit like you. The stories are short and the book is an easy and quick read.

This may be helpful to one other group. In some cases years or decades have passed since we’ve come to faith. Perhaps we never remember a time we did not believe. That’s not how it is with everyone and this book can help with understanding the journeys to faith of those not like us and perhaps help us to become aware of the ways spiritual stirrings might show themselves in our friends.

I found myself encouraged as I read this book, that God delights in bringing people from all kinds of places into relationship with himself. There is no barrier too great, and even if we are stumbling along the way to God, God finds a way to us.


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

Review: The Haunted Bookshop

The Haunted Bookshop

The Haunted BookshopChristopher Morley. New York: Mysterious Press/Open Road Media, 2015 (first published 1919).

Summary: A mystery in a bookshop, involving a book that keeps disappearing, a wealthy businessman’s daughter, a young advertising salesman, a gregarious bookseller, and a German pharmacist.

What could be better for a bibliophile than a mystery in a bookshop? This classic by Christopher Morley begins with a young advertising salesman, Aubrey Gilbert, trying to sell advertising to the eccentric and voluble New York bookseller, Roger Mifflin, proprietor of Parnassus at Home a.k.a The Haunted Bookshop. In an explanation posted in the store, it is explained that “THIS SHOP IS HAUNTED by the ghosts of all great literature.” Gilbert fails to sell advertising, but stays for dinner, listening to Mifflin share the first of several discourses on the mystique of books and bookselling that run through the book. Here is a small part:

“My business, you see, is different from most. I only deal in second-hand books; I only buy books that I consider have some honest reason for existence. In so far as human judgment can discern, I try to keep trash out of my shelves. A doctor doesn’t traffic in quack remedies. I don’t traffic in bogus books.”

The bookshop seems to be haunted by more than ghosts of great literature. A book requested by a bearded customer written by Thomas Carlyle on Oliver Cromwell is missing. Throughout the story, the book, a favorite of Woodrow Wilson, will reappear and disappear several times in the course of the story. When Gilbert returns with a lost and found ad for the book placed, not by Mifflin, but by a chef at a nearby hotel, a chef Gilbert had run into, holding the book he had advertised as lost, the mystery deepens as they puzzle over what could be going on. While mystery is deepening, love is blossoming. Mifflin has agreed to allow young Titania Chapman, the daughter of a wealthy businessman with whom Gilbert has an account, to get experience working in the shop, at the request of her father. The moment Gilbert meets her he is smitten.

He is also caught up with the puzzle of the missing book, which only deepens when he finds the cover, minus the book, sandwiched in some books in Weintraub’s drugstore, Weintraub being the bearded gentleman who had called that first night when Gilbert and Mifflin met. Before he can make it home, he is nearly thrown off a bridge into the river, suffering a blow to his head before onlookers come to his rescue. Worried about Titania, he takes a room opposite the bookshop. When he sees Weintraub go into the store after hours, using a key of his own, he assumes that Mifflin is in on the plot, perhaps to kidnap young Titania for ransom, or worse, the book being a way of communicating.

The real truth is far more sinister. Until Gilbert and Mifflin tussle on a Philadelphia street, Mifflin is blissfully unaware of what is swirling about him, lost in the wonders of books, and Gilbert woefully mistaken. Back in New York, Weintraub has left a suitcase of books with Titania for a caller. Both suspect that they were lured to Philadelphia to set up something far more serious and that the suitcase is dangerous. Will they get back in time? And what is in the suitcase? And how does it all relate to the mysteriously disappearing volume of Carlyle?

This was a delightful good time, with diverting soliloquies by Mifflin on books and scenes of domestic bliss with his wife and little dog Bock. One of the most amusing chapters was the Corn Cob Club, a gathering of booksellers discussing the trade. In this instance they debate whether booksellers have an obligation to steer customers to quality works, or simply sell what they want. As you might guess, Mifflin was in the former group. In another soliloquy, he declaims:

“You see what I’m driving at. I want to give people an entirely new idea about bookshops. The grain of glory that I hope will cure both my fever and my lethargicness is my conception of the bookstore as a power-house, a radiating place for truth and beauty. I insist books are not absolutely dead things: they are as lively as those fabulous dragons’ teeth, and being sown up and down, may chance to spring up armed men.”

He dreams of stocking a fleet of traveling Parnassus stores that will scatter through the country. Although Mifflin appears to be a bookstore version of Don Quixote with dreams of grandeur, how many of us have felt some of the same things as we prowled the aisle of a wonderful old bookstore? Yet he bests younger Gilbert, and awakens to the real world dangers facing young Titania. But will he make it in time?

For those familiar with the real world of books, you may know of author Ann Patchett’s Parnassus Books in Nashville. As far as I can tell, Morley’s story was not the inspiration for the store’s name. Rather, as best as I can tell, they go back to a common source, the significance of Mount Parnassus in mythology as the home of the muses, or in the words of the real Parnassus Books, “In Greek mythology, Mount Parnassus was the home of literature, learning, and music. We are Nashville’s Parnassus, providing a refuge for Nashvillians of all ages who share in our love of the written word.” It seems that Parnassus at Home was Roger Mifflin’s (and Christopher Morley’s) realization of the same dream.

Review: American Academic Cultures

American Academic Cultures

American Academic CulturesPaul H. Mattingly. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017.

Summary: Traces the history and development of higher education in the United States as a succession of seven “generational cultures,” using examples of prominent institutions representing the emergence of each culture.

How did higher education in the United States achieve its present status, whether one considers this desirable or otherwise? Was there a golden age in American higher education, and if so, exactly when was that? These and other questions are much discussed in higher education circles and the topic of numerous historical explorations of higher education in America. Most trace the development from colleges closely tied to the church through the rise of research universities and public, land-grant institutions, down to the present day of our complex multiversities. Most works simply trace a linear development. What is distinctive in Paul Mattingly’s work is the proposal that this development might be understood as a succession of seven overlapping “generational academic cultures” which he discusses in the course of the fifteen “essays” that comprise the book. In each of these, he elaborates the character of these cultures through highlighting examples of prominent institutions, cultural trends, and key figures that represent a particular academic culture.

The seven generational academic cultures he identifies are (the date ranges are my approximations):

  1. Evangelical (1636-1800): These colleges were church-related institutions (Harvard, Yale, etc) that focused on the intersection of piety and intellect and whose character was profoundly shaped by the Great Awakening.
  2. Jeffersonian (1750-1830): As denominational colleges spread southward, Jefferson and the patrician hierarchy of Virginia sought to check the strong denominational indoctrination and paternalistic control through a publicly supported university that expressed the mores and values of the region. The University of Virginia was the educational, and even architectural expression of the ideal of “Mr. Jefferson’s University.”
  3. Republican/non-denominational (1800-1860): The growth of a post-Revolutionary republic and the need to educate business and civic leaders brought an emphasis on “moral character over “true belief,” resulting in even denominational schools broadening their curriculum to accommodate these needs. (I wonder if 2 and 3 are aspects of a single academic culture)
  4. Industrially-driven post-graduate/professional organization (1860-1910): The Civil War marked a watershed in higher education as war-related research and scientific and technological advances resulted in an increasing emphasis on post-graduate research on the European model, and post-graduate professional education. It led to the rise of the land-grant universities propelling both agricultural and engineering and science education, and Charles William Eliot’s efforts to turn Harvard into a “generic” university.
  5. A Progressive (urban-driven) pragmatism with a substantial liberal arts/teaching countercurrent (1880-1930): The rise of American cities and Progressive reforms led to the growth of urban universities that addressed issues of education, health, safety, and labor. This was the period of figures like Thorstein Veblen in sociology and John Dewey in philosophy and education. This period was epitomized by William Rainey Harper’s University of Chicago that fused liberal education with these pragmatic concerns, all within a Gothic architecture harking back to Europe’s great universities.
  6. An internationally-minded academic discourse (1890-1950): The emergence of research-oriented institutions like John’s Hopkins and its impact on the university landscape led to increasing ties with European scholars. The rise of Nazism resulted in a mass immigration of many of those scholars to the United States, where their presence transformed the discourse in fields from psychology to physics.
  7. The current corporate multiversity (1940-present): The ultimate expression of the development of pragmatism, where academic departments and interdisciplinary research vastly expanded in respond to federal research funding. Clark Kerr’s University of California–Berkeley is the epitome of this pragmatic university, organized not around an educational ideology but around the driving forces of research monies and market forces.

The work concludes with a chapter on challenging pragmatism, and indeed, it seems the author has landed on the critical question that this survey raises. Mattingly traces an evolution of higher education from institutions shaped around cultures centered on ideas to ones shaped by increasingly pragmatic concerns. The question this raises is whether our system of higher education exists for anything more than serving the research and vocational training needs of the country?

Mattingly contends that throughout this history, faculty have had a shaping role in the successive cultures of higher education, and believes this will be so in the future. I have to admit to being more dubious about both parts of his proposal. I think his survey actually demonstrates the predominant influence of cultural forces outside the university that shaped successive academic cultures. The culture-shapers he singles out inside higher education are primarily university presidents, and it seems that the prominent ones were those who got on the leading edge of broader cultural changes and led their institutional response to these changes. Furthermore, the corporatization of universities with more power flowing to administration and the adjunctification of the faculty suggests to me an even more diminished influence. I think the author is engaging in some wishful thinking at this point unless a concerted and focused movement of resistance and reform by noted scholars and tenured faculty arises.

The other criticism of this work is that it focuses primarily on elite institutions. While noting democratizing trends in higher education (with some attention on the development of the California State system as an example) relatively little attention is given to the diverse landscape of contemporary higher education from community colleges to the continued existence of liberal arts schools, urban universities (not the University of Chicago but the Wayne States (Detroit) of the university world, as well as the state systems, the comprehensive public universities, and the elite research universities. There is no mention of online education nor the rise of for-profit institutions. Perhaps considerations of space preclude this but it all seems an expression of the extension of both republican values (small “r”) and pragmatic concerns that the author so helpfully highlights.

These criticisms aside, the model of generational academic cultures as a way of understanding the history of American higher education seems quite helpful. It helps account for the very different ethos one finds in the collegiate settings of 1750, 1850, 1950, and today. As I noted, it also highlights the interplay of broader and academic cultural forces. Furthermore, the overlapping nature of these cultures underscores that the transition from one culture to another was never without tensions, throwbacks, and contention around the question of why a college or university exists. Furthermore, any meaningful conversation about the future(s) of higher education cannot exist apart from understanding where we are and how we got here, or a consideration of the cultural forces shaping the discussion. Mattingly’s well-researched and organized work seems to me required reading for any who care about such matters.


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

Review: Mere Science and Christian Faith


Mere Science and Christian FaithGreg Cootsona. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2018.

Summary: Many emerging adults think that science and faith should complement each other and are put off by church contexts that force a choice between faith and science. The book contends that it is possible to bring science and faith into fruitful conversation, and provides examples of how this is possible.

Emerging adults (18-30 year-olds) are leaving the church in record numbers. “Nones” or those who identify as “spiritual but not religious” are on the rise. There are a number of causes for this but one is that emerging adults encounter congregations where science is the enemy and the relationship between faith and science is defined as a conflict. Many of these emerging adults see beauty in creation that is enhanced by their study of science and don’t see science and faith as opposed. But if forced to choose, many choose science. Science and technology play a huge role in their lives, whether it is in their concern for their environment, their understanding of human sexuality, or the smartphones that are a ubiquitous presence and have changed their ways of relating to each other and the world.

Greg Cootsona writes about these trends and how Christians might foster a better conversation that aspires to intersection and integration rather than conflict and warfare. After profiling emerging adults, he discusses our engagement with the new atheism, often alienated by anti-science attitudes in Christian communities, principles for interpreting the Bible, recognizing both the good in technology, and where we may need to take a break from it.

These chapters are interspersed with “case studies” of engaging various contemporary developments–cognitive science, the Big Bang and fine-tuning arguments, Intelligent Design, climate change, and sexuality. Can cognitive science explain belief? How can we take fine-tuning arguments too far? What does Intelligent Design’s focus on irreducible compexity miss? How can we have a fruitful conversation about the highly politicized subject of climate change? How do we engage genetic understandings of orientation and gender?

The concluding chapter is titled “Moving Forward.” Cootsona articulates a compelling vision of telling better, true and beautiful stories that bring faith and science together. He writes:

“I do know, however, that these true, better stories are also beautiful. They will bring together the goodness and truth of the good news with the beauty of God. There truth becomes beautiful. And it should not be overlooked that rhetoric–as an engagement with beauty–should be used in concert with philosophy–as the pursuit of truth. Truth is only worth engaging if it’s beautiful, and beauty is that which allures us.” (p. 162)

This is a short, pithy book that is written conversationally rather than didactically. Quotes from emerging adults illustrative of chapter themes are sprinkled throughout the text. Pithy however does not mean light weight. Current scientists like Katherine Hayhoe and Elaine Ecklund are cited, writers on the philosophy of science like Ian Barbour, and theologians like Arthur Peacocke. Both text and footnotes point readers to further resources in both print and online form. This is an ideal introduction for those working with emerging adults as well as for emerging adults themselves who are wondering if it is possible for there to be a better conversation between science and faith. If Greg Cootsona is right, there are indeed many better conversations we might have.


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

Review: The Galileo Connection

The Galileo Connection

The Galileo ConnectionCharles E. Hummel. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1986.

Summary: A study of past and present “conflicts” between science and the Bible, that proposes that the reality of these conflicts were actually more complex, that Galileo and others were sincere Christians, and that it is possible both to pursue rigorous science and believe the Bible.

The confrontation between Galileo Galilei and the church, in which Galileo was forced to abjure his views regarding a heliocentric model of the orbits of the planets, is often cited as the classic case of the warfare between science and Christianity. This work, something of a classic, proposes that the actual history isn’t quite that simple, and that science and the Bible needn’t be at war with each other.

The author, a former chemical engineer and national leader of a collegiate ministry responsible for launching its ministry with faculty, first studies the history of the conflict and the emergence of the scientific enterprise, then turns to the matter of the Bible and science, and concludes with some cases of possible conflict and possible resolutions concluding with a chapter that is worth the price of admission that outlines connections between theology and science.

Hummel begins by tracing the rise of science from Aristotle and Archimedes, including the Aristotelian geocentric model of the universe. This was systematized in Ptolemy’s Almagest and became enshrined in the church. Copernicus was the first to hypothesize a heliocentric view, and at the advice of Osiander, proposed this as a hypothesis or model for computations rather than a description of the way things were, keeping the Aristotelians at bay. Johannes Kepler saw the beauty in Copernicus’ proposal and, combining mathematical and observational data, proposed orbits that were ellipses rather than circular, and recorded his work in the Rudolphine Tables, The Epitome, and other works. He believed his ideas were not just models, but the way things were. At the same time, none of this shook his faith or seemed contrary to it and as he was dying declared where his salvation lay: “Only and alone on the services of Jesus Christ.”

Galileo had the misfortune to come along at the time of the Renaissance and Reformation. Galileo’s rising career and defense of the ideas of Copernicus at received a favorable reception from the Pope. Unfortunately, he ran afoul of the Aristotelian professors at Pisa who joined with church leaders to repudiate the work of Copernicus. Galileo went to ground for a time, but produced his Dialogue on the Two Principle World Systems, couched as conversations between an Aristotelian and a Copernican. The outcry resulted in his trial, where the Aristotelians prevailed. What is significant is that in the end, Galileo never thought his science in conflict with scripture, and the outcome was as much a result of political maneuvering by the Aristotelian academics, aided by clergy, as anything. The church still doesn’t look good, but what is evident was that Galileo was attacked as much for challenging a prevailing scientific paradigm, that had been conflated with church teaching, rather than teaching what was contrary to Christian doctrine.

Hummel completes his survey of science with chapters on Isaac Newton and modern science. Newton not only elucidated foundational theories of physics and mathematics, but also wrote extensively on the Bible. He advocated for observational science while affirming that the cosmos reflects the work of “an intelligent and power Being.” The concluding chapter in the first part explores modern science, arguing that its methods and basic premises are both consistent, and may actually have been facilitated by a Christian worldview (e.g. the regularity, contingency, and intelligibility of the universe).

Part Two focuses on biblical interpretation. Hummel explores the importance of the historical and literary context of scripture as well as the biblical language of nature which is the language of appearance (e.g. the sun rises), and nontheoretical. In discussing miracles and scientific law, he notes that science is descriptive and not prescriptive, and that miracles, as non-repeating events are beyond the purview of science, and are matters for philosophy and history. Finally, he turns to the early chapters of Genesis showing the highly structured character of chapter one in which God forms during the first three days what he fills during the second three, he discusses the difficulties concordist approaches have of conforming scientific discoveries to a literal six day, young earth interpretation, and observes how, when we move beyond preoccupations with “how long,” we find much of import for Israel among the nations, for biblical theology, for the scientific enterprise in de-divinizing nature, and for our care for the creation.

Part Three centers around two areas the conflicts in geology and biology, including tracing the history of evolution controversies in the United States, including the creation science controversies of the 1980’s, up to the time of the book’s publication. In each, he shows the nature of the conflict as well as approaches that resolve and move beyond those conflicts. The final chapter demonstrates the connections between science and faith, reflecting the idea of the two media of God’s revelation, that are mutually informing. Science answers “how” and theology answers “who and why.” Science explains what “is” and theology explores what “ought” to be. Science helps us understand mechanism while theology reveals goals and values. He lays a basis for conversations where theologians and scientists might learn from, rather than fight with each other. He concludes the work with an epilogue on the life of Pascal, scientist, mathematician, and apologist and theologian, whose Pensees profoundly influenced French literary work. Hummel writes of Pascal:

“If a passage of Scripture seems to contradict the senses or reason (scientific explanation), ‘we must interpret the Scripture, and seek therein another meaning which will be in agreement with the testimony of the senses.’ Since the Word of God is infallible, and our observations provide reliable information, the two must be in agreement when properly understood. To confirm that principle Pascal quoted both Augustine and Aquinas.” (p. 272)

Written over thirty years ago, Hummel does not address more recent conflicts around Intelligent Design Theory or climate science (a political as much as theological conflict). Nor does he deal with newer developments around sociobiology, neuroscience, and genomics, nor the explosion of technology and the lures of trans-humanism. The work also does not incorporate the biblical insights of John Walton on the early chapters of Genesis, though his comments on Genesis are consistent with Walton’s treatment.

What Hummel does is give us a good account of the rise of science, particularly the tension between Aristotelian and observational science. He explores well the questions both science and scripture can and cannot answer, and how, rather than being in conflict, may together give us a fuller understanding of reality than either can alone.

I first read this book shortly after publication. Coming back to it thirty years, and many discussions later, I found much that is still relevant, and a large measure of good sense. The author died in 2004 and the work is now “print on demand” or available in the second hand market. Other books have come on the scene since but I still appreciate the breadth and careful thought that combines history, biography, interpretive principles in scripture, an exploration of the nature and philosophy of science, and models of reconciling conflicts in one volume. For both the apologist and Christian who is in science or works with those who are, this book ought to be on your reading list.

Review: The Kingdom of God Has No Borders

The Kingdom of God Has No Borders

The Kingdom of God Has No BordersMelani McAlister. New York: Oxford University Press, (forthcoming, August 1) 2018.

Summary: An exploration of the international dimension of American evangelicalism, focusing particularly on Africa and the Middle East, the impact this American movement has had globally, and in turn ways global evangelicalism is engaging American evangelicalism.

American evangelicalism has been the subject of much historical, sociological and political analysis. Nearly all of this has been focused within the borders of the United States. Melani McAlister studies this movement through a different lens–the mission efforts of the past fifty years that have led to an international engagement, particularly as growing indigenous movements have challenged American evangelical beliefs and practices. The work includes extensive archival research, on the ground observation, and carefully chosen photographs that enhance the text. The focus of the author is on efforts in the Middle East and Africa, consistent with the author’s research area as an associate professor of American Studies and International Affairs at George Washington University.

The scope of this study is the last fifty years, going back to the 1960’s. After an introduction, the first section of the book is concerned with “networks,” the linkages of various key organizations within evangelicalism (e.g. the National Association of Evangelicals, InterVarsity, the Southern Baptist Convention, and others) both with one another, at conferences and in mission efforts. The narrative begins with the efforts of evangelicalism to reconcile its concern for peoples of color with the racial struggle coming to the surface in the 1960’s, then moves on to the Congo Crisis and encounters with Marxist movements and the intersection of religious and political concerns–would Congo become another Vietnam. At the same time, Israel captured the American imagination in its victory in the 1967 war, leading to travel to biblical sites and increasing linkages between religious hopes and American foreign policy. This section concludes with the largest networking encounter of the period, Lausanne ’74 and the growing tension between missional advance and social justice concerns from delegates in the developing world who were asserting their own voices increasingly.

Part Two is organized around body politics. It begins with Richard Wurmbrand displaying the wounds from his tortures before the U.S. Congress. Much of this section concerns persecution of evangelicals abroad and the intersection with concerns for religious liberty at home. McAlister traces the engagement with South African apartheid and how U.S. evangelicals dealt with the treatment of blacks and the witness of black Christian leaders. She explores the rising awareness of the Muslim World and the 10/40 Window heuristic for the unreached and resistant areas of the Muslim World. The section concludes with African American evangelicals efforts to address the crisis in South Sudan, and the redemption of people taken into slavery, an engagement of the heart that fails to get to the heart of the political turmoil in this troubled part of the world.

This leads naturally into Part Three, titled “Emotions.” McAlister explores what she calls “enchanted internationalism” that motivates much of evangelical mission. She chronicles the “short term missions” movement and the motivation of so many who “have a heart” for the lost, but often do not truly engage the cultural realities of the places they go, often supplanting national workers who may be as, or more capable. McAlister tells the complicated story of American engagement around HIV/AIDS, and homosexuality in Africa, where African evangelicals take a much harsher line than Americans like Rick Warren, and resent what they see as American cultural imperialism asserting itself into African churches. Again, much of the focus is South Sudan, as she joins Dick Robinson from Elmbrook Church as he visits believers scattered through the country and joins a Global Urban Trek of InterVarsity students in Egypt working with South Sudanese refugees as they confront both the enchantment of close identification one student had with Muslim Egyptians, and the struggle of a black participant who feels the racism of Egyptians while identifying more closely with the South Sudanese. All confront the expectations on Americans, the complexities of political and social realities, and the challenge of trying to live authentic Christian lives in difficult circumstances.

As someone who lives inside the world McAlister is studying and works in one of the organizations she investigates, I wondered how she would treat us. She is honest at one point in identifying herself as secular (on an Elmbrook Church mission project, one of the few organizations that permitted her to participate in such projects), and I thought fairly represented the facts. This was neither tribute nor hatchet job. It represents both noble efforts and questionable outlooks. She explores how global realities intersect with the American expressions of evangelicalism–how can we care for people of color around the world while tolerating racism at home? How do we hold mission in the Muslim world together with an increasing animus toward Muslims at home? How concerned are we for the religious liberties of the other as we advocate for our own? Furthermore, will we truly regard those who are fellow evangelicals around the world as equals and allow them to speak into our religious and political life as Americans? What happens when grateful recipients become equal partners? What happens when American evangelicals are a minority in a growing global movement?

I was deeply impressed with the incarnational approach of McAlister, who makes the effort to get on the inside that enables readers to see what American evangelicalism in its global efforts might look like to an outsider. I often read accounts of evangelicalism that are unrecognizable. The challenging aspect of this book is how recognizable it is, a mirror held up to us that shows all our features—and flaws.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary advance 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: Evolution and Holiness

Evolution and Holiness

Evolution and HolinessMatthew Nelson Hill (Foreword by Darrel R. Falk). Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2016.

Summary: Evolutionary sociobiology proposes a genetic basis both for selfishness and altruism yet does not provide a sufficient warrant for altruism. The author proposes ways that Wesleyan theology and practice of holiness both intersects with scientific theory and offers a capacity for human goodness that goes beyond genetic dispositions.

Recent research on genetics and sociobiology proposes that at a genetic level we have evolved with “selfish” or perhaps “altruistic” genes that play a role in our behavior. Some would go so far as to say that these genetic traits determine behavior. Most would propose that environmental, along with genetic factors contribute to our behavior, indeed explain our behavior. Often these explanations are made in ways that preclude theological explanations of altruistic behavior.

Matthew Nelson Hill makes the contention in this monograph that Christian, and particularly Wesleyan, understandings of human nature, and growth in holiness is neither unrelated or antithetical to sociobiology, but there are profitable points of intersection between science and theology. Theologians may profit from this work. At the same time, theology offers helpful correctives.

After an introductory chapter that outlines the aim and contours of his argument, in chapter two, he surveys sociobiological theories of altruism, and the mix of genetic propensities to preserving and passing along our own genes, and the inborn tendencies to altruistic behavior toward kin and social group. Then in chapter three, he explores the limitations of these theories to fully explain altruism. He explores the influence of culture, the problematic uses of language, and the reductionistic character of some sociobiologists (particularly E. O. Wilson) who make assertions beyond the scope of their discipline.

He then moves in chapter four to dealing with a fundamental issue in this discussion: is human behavior fully determined or do we have the capacity to overcome our inclinations or even move beyond the best of these? He argues for a compatibilist understanding of free will that recognizes an evolved capacity to consciously act in ways that contradict or transcend genetic or environmental influences. This sets up his exploration of Wesleyan holiness teaching that reckons with human nature and enables the embrace of Wesleyan “perfection.” Chapter five explores the sanctifying grace that is God’s initiative, with which we may cooperate, drawing ever closer to God in affection and life, with the aim of being perfected in love. Then chapter six explores how Wesleyan societies and “bands” provide an environment that supports this growth in holy affection and life. The concluding chapter recapitulates this study and makes brief observations of how other traditions might engage this discussion.

This work is valuable in several ways. Hill gives us a concise overview of sociobiological theories, a helpful assessment and critique of reductionist and totalizing assertions, and a compatibilist discussion of genetics, environment and free will that suggests ways theology and science may intersect. Finally, the discussion of a Wesleyan theology of sanctification, often an object of argument, in the framework of a discussion of altruism was a breath of fresh air. The appendices that introduce us to Wesley’s ideas of Christian perfection, and the ordering of his societies may be a first introduction for some to Wesley in his own words.

I did find myself wrestling with some questions concerning how I think some of this was framed. The language of “selfish” and “altruistic,” which is a vivid way to describe a genetic tendency to preserve and perpetuate either one’s own genotype (selfish) or that of related or unrelated others (altruistic) seems to slide easily from the behavior of our genes to human behavior. It also seemed to me that the writer tended to equate fallen human nature with genetic influences that undermine altruism. At the same time he argues for a free will that may be empowered by grace to overcome and go beyond natural tendencies. I wonder if it is right to suggest that our fallenness is written into our genes? I wonder if the defect is not in our genes but our will? Both preservation of our selves and our kin or wider social group seem inherently good. If we indeed have a will, is it not this that turns these instincts to selfish ends or ends of holy love under grace?

That said, and I hope I have accurately understood and represented the writer, I greatly appreciated this work as a model of the kinds of fruitful dialogue that I believe can occur between science and theology. I appreciate that he neither impugns the motives of scientists, nor denies scientific findings but rather brings them into a theological conversation. It is a frank conversation that challenges imprecise language and instances of overreach while listening to and representing the science fairly. This is the work Christians who do not believe science and faith are at war must do to make good that claim. Wouldn’t it be wonderful, if in the process, more friendships between scientists and theologians were formed?

Review: Favor


FavorGreg Gilbert. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2017.

Summary: An exploration of experiencing God’s favor on our lives, far greater than we can conceive, utterly dependent upon Christ, and leading us into the joyful worship of God.

Greg Gilbert thinks that many of us are either chasing after false notions of the favor of God, or repelled by the health-and-wealth preachers who promote these notions, and that as a result we may neglect the unfathomably rich gift of God’s favor, a theme running through scripture. About these false notions, he writes:

“For one thing, the favor of God is almost always defined as divine blessings being poured out in a person’s life so that good things start to happen to them right away. Most of the time, those good things take the form of financial blessings—debt reduction, increased income, surprise cash, unexpected windfalls—and the evidence of God’s favor in that person’s life is that they are able to live a certain lifestyle. It’s not just financial good, though, that’s said to come with God’s favor. A person will also have relational success with their spouse or children or friends, professional accomplishment at work, or even a new and unexpected personal charm that makes other people want to do kind things for them, even backing down and letting them have the best parking spot in the lot because somehow, in some way, they recognize that person is a child of the King. When those kinds of things are happening, the story goes, then the favor of God is all over you” (pp. 13-14)

Gilbert contends, in the words of C. S. Lewis, that this is like a child making mud pies in a slum because he or she can’t imagine a holiday at the sea. God has so much more for us and he elaborates this in a study of God’s favor in scripture, noting that critical to this is the idea of being acceptable to God. Favor is earned, yet the problem with this is that we are utterly incapable of earning this ourselves, contrary to the claims of health and wealth preachers who contend that the right prayer, or seed gifts will bring an avalanche of blessing. We have been rebels against God who fall short of the righteousness that gains God’s favor.

Thankfully, we have a “champion” in Christ–one who has won that favor for us through his life, death, and resurrection. The amazing thing is that through faith, we may be united with Christ, Christ in us and we in Christ. In him we have died, been raised, and we enjoy what he enjoys, the favor of God.

In the second part of his book, Gilbert goes on to delineate the blessings experienced by those who enjoy the favor of God. Far beyond what is promised by the health-and-wealth prosperity preachers, we enjoy contentment in an anxious world, the peace of those with a clear conscience, having been declared righteous by God, and enjoying life everlasting, where all that is left to death is to deliver us safely into God’s arms.

He concludes the book with a rallying cry to fight against sin for who we are as the adopted and favored children of the King. He reminds us that we do not fight alone but in the power of the Holy Spirit, who indwells us and destroys sin in our lives down to its roots. He holds before us a life as epic adventure as we live into our destiny as people of the King.

In one sense, there was nothing new here. What Gilbert does here is simply preach the gospel, a gospel that is often lost in our moral, therapeutic, self-help culture where we think of God’s blessings as a kind of quid pro quo for all that we contribute to God’s cause. Down inside, this is all unsatisfying, and we sense we need something far more profound than we can gin up on our own. As I read Gilbert, I found myself reflecting again with how good is this story of God’s favor to us in Christ. As I did so, I kept thinking of this verse of the Katherine Hankey/William G. Fischer hymn, “I Love to Tell the Story”:

I love to tell the story
For those who know it best
Seem hungering and thirsting
To hear it like the rest

Indeed, what Gilbert offers here is the “old story,” one I’ve heard since childhood. Yet I found myself hungering, and thirsting, and delighting as I read Gilbert’s account of that story of God’s favor in Christ–far better than prosperity preaching and self-help dreams.


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