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.

Let’s End This War!


Andrew Dickson White, President of Cornell, who contended there was a war between science and Christianity, Photo Public Domain via Wikimedia

This week on the blog I will be reviewing several books on science and Christianity. A theme that runs through all of these books is that science and Christian faith needn’t be in conflict. That is my own conviction as well. John Calvin, and others, have spoken about God revealing God’s self through two books, the Bible and the Creation. God has authored both, and they do not conflict with each other, properly understood.

The language of “warfare” came from two critics of Christianity, John William Draper, who wrote History of the Conflict between Religion and Science (1874) and Andrew Dickson White, president of Cornell University, who wrote A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (1896). Sadly, many Christians, rather than recognizing that many of the “conflicts” were simply ones of interpretation, were only too happy to join the battle, either arguing how science had gotten it wrong or offering forced explanations that shoehorned science into scripture, often resulting in both bad science and bad biblical interpretation.

Sadly, there are a number of people on both sides who have continued the conflict down to the present day. The cynic in me wonders how much money has to do with it, as key figures have built empires around fighting for creation or science. There is money to be made in perpetuating this war, as in many others. What troubles me is to see the casualties of this war. There are some who have turned their backs on a science that sometimes offers seemingly total explanations but cannot offer meaning and purpose. There are others, often who began as enthusiastic believers, were presented with the false dichotomy of choosing either faith or science, and seeing the beauty of science, turned away from their faith. Finally, I have friends, Christians in science, who often get shot at from both sides. Scientists question how they can be serious about their science if they believe, and believers question how they can be authentic in their faith if they do science.

Here are some suggestions I would make for those interested in a “cease fire” proposal:

For Christians:

  • I would start by reading your Bible more carefully. A good friend who is an evangelical and was an English major in college said, “I don’t read the Bible literally, but rather literarily.” Many of our conflicts have to do with trying to answer questions the biblical writers had no interest in answering. We don’t do our homework to understand what scripture might have meant to a people 2000 to 3000 years ago in very different cultural settings.
  • Resist the effort to try to “prove” Christian faith by science, when theories change and evolve. Also, if Christianity has to be proved by science, we end up suggesting that science is actually prior to and more important than our revealed faith. Far more constructive is to observe where Christian belief and scientific finds are consistent with each other.
  • It helps to understand that most actual science is very evidence driven, and not driven by some “godless agenda.” I have friends (a number are believers) who have literally gone to the ends of the world collecting data about changes in the earth’s climate, and documented effects of warmer climates on glaciers and the water they provide to communities, and are mystified when fellow believers accuse them of liberal political agendas. They are just doing research and reporting their findings, which are very concerning to them.
  • Instead of fearing conflict or getting uneasy when something doesn’t jibe with our beliefs, why not view this as a doorway to a greater understanding? The Reformation began when Martin Luther struggled to interpret Romans. Anomalies lead to breakthroughs. Instead of defending one’s current understanding against something in science that seems to challenge that understanding, why not ask of science, “tell me more” and really listen. And then keep studying and digging in the scriptures as well. The truth is we often are woefully illiterate in our knowledge of our faith.

And a few words on the science side:

  • The big one is to honestly acknowledge when you are making statements that arise not from your science but from beliefs or even axiomatic statements that cannot be scientifically demonstrated. Take off your lab jacket when you make these statements. It’s not wrong to make such statements. Even statements that disagree with Christian belief. Just don’t use the aura of science to add weight to them. It gives science a bad name.
  • Avoid reductionistic or totalizing statements that convey that your little slice of the scientific pie explains all reality. Truth is that this makes other scientists in other disciplines angry as well as those who believe in other, including religious, ways of knowing.

Perhaps for all of us some humility would help, and truthfully we don’t have to go far to find it. Our own disciplines should be enough. As a student of scripture, I have walls of books, many of which I’ve read, and have read and re-read the Bible cover to cover, and I’m constantly surprised both with new insights and new questions. Any honest scientist will say the same.

What I love, and I think all too rare, are the conversations where scientists and believers come together, not to fight, but to learn from each other. I know of conversations where environmental scientists and Christians who believe they have been entrusted by God to care for his good world learn from and teach each other. I can envision conversations where neuroscientists and Christian philosophers and theologians talk about the science of the brain, the nature of consciousness, and the soul. I’ve watched the collaboration of linguistic researchers and Bible translators in preserving languages that could be assimilated and lost. I’ve delighted to listen to astrophysicists describe the wonders of the cosmos as well as the things, like dark matter, that perplex them, and I share their perplexity as I meditate on Psalm 8:3-4:

When I consider your heavens,
    the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars,
    which you have set in place,
what is mankind that you are mindful of them,
    human beings that you care for them? (NIV)

In all this incredible vastness where we are mere specks, how can it be that we are known by God–and yet we are!

I will not be enlisted for this war. Scientists are flesh and blood people and not the enemies we are to fight (Ephesians 6:12). Through history many great scientists have in fact been great believers. For example, it was Georges Lemaitre, a Belgian Catholic priest, known as the father of the “Big Bang,” who used Einstein’s theory of relativity to show that the universe was not static but expanding, contrary to Einstein who argued for the static model. Later Einstein said Lemaitre’s theory was “the most beautiful and satisfactory explanation of creation to which I have ever listened.” Why fight wars when you can have a conversation like that, one that at times was an argument, but eventuated in a larger understanding of our world? Let’s end this war!

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?

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Car Repairs


Image by Jorge Royan, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia

Yesterday, I had my car into our local car repair shop for some minor repairs (minor means it only cost $130). I’m fortunate to have a shop in walking distance of our home that we’ve dealt with for 25 years, with mechanics who have been there ten years or longer who we trust to do what needs to be done, and fix it right the first time.

That got me thinking about how we repaired cars growing up in working class Youngstown. For starters, many were do-it-your-selfers. The repair garage was your own garage or driveway. People did their own oil and filter changes, tune ups, complete with a gap tool. Often parts stores would re-surface brake drums so you paid a few bucks for that and installed your own brakes. In Youngstown’s winter climate, auto bodies got eaten alive by road salt. Bondo was your friend–you filled holes, sanded, buffed, primed and painted, and hoped you could match the rest of the car.

Some of us left the major jobs to the professionals–valve jobs and engine work, dropping a transmission or a differential. But there were those intrepid souls who weren’t daunted by tearing anything apart. You’d spot an old engine block in the back of the garage and see them swapping out another engine. The hot rod enthusiasts were known for this stuff.

Many of us just took our cars to a local shop with a good mechanic. This was before the big chains and dealerships came to dominate the car repair market. Dad used to take his car to the mechanic at the corner of Portland and Mahoning Avenue. There was an older fellow who I think was named Harry Milliken who worked on his cars for years. One time, I hit a patch of ice, banged into a curb and knocked our front end badly out of line. Total repair bill: $32. In later years Harry turned the business over to one of his other mechanics, Mike, who I believe still runs a repair shop at that location and maintained my dad’s car until he stopped driving. When it came time to sell dad’s last car, a 1994 Buick, in 2010, the car ran like a Swiss watch. We sold it to a friend, and from what I understand, it is still going!

There were a number of garages like that in the neighborhood. Just down the street from Mike’s was Paul Golec’s shop (also still in business, I believe). There used to be a Sohio on Steel Street that we would hang out at as paperboys while we waited for our papers to be delivered. A block down on Steel Street was a transmission shop.  What was great about these places was that there was a guy who knew your car, had worked on it for years (and chances are, a number of others like it). You could walk home while your car was being worked on. It wasn’t like going to one of these national chains where you have a different person servicing your car each time and you don’t know how much he actually knows. Nor was it a dealership that would charge you an arm and a leg.

While most cars still have internal combustion engines, spark plugs, and brakes, they have a lot of other equipment our old mechanics never had to deal with. These days, a mechanic needs to be part computer scientist, part auto mechanic to service a car. For many problems, expensive diagnostic equipment is needed, pricing some of the small shops out of business. Some problems can only be fixed by dealers with equipment for a particular make and model.

Cars are more fuel-efficient, and run much more cleanly. Safety features like airbags make them much safer but also require recalls that can only be repaired at a dealer. It used to be that people traded in vehicles every few years. Our last car lasted 17 years and our current one is 10 years old. Cars we bought in the 1970’s didn’t last 10 years. But most of us no longer do anything but the most basic repairs. Some of the newest cars have headlights that take special tools and cost a fortune. I used to go to the auto parts store and buy a headlight for under $10 and replace it myself.

The neighborhood garage, like the doctor who makes house calls, is becoming a thing of the past. The Tuffy I go to is a franchise but still has some of that feel–good mechanics, reliable service at a decent price, and a short walk away. I count myself fortunate. No doubt part of the attraction is it reminds me of the neighborhood garages I hung around as a kid when dad took the car to be worked on. In Youngstown.

Why Isn’t This Book in the Lectionary?


Nahum, 18th Century Russian Icon, PD-US via Wikimedia

Last Sunday, I learned one of those interesting “factoids” that may signify more than we think. I discovered that there are no readings from the minor prophet Nahum in either the Roman Catholic Sunday Lectionary or the Revised Common Lectionary used in many Protestant churches. For many people who do not engage in personal reading through the scriptures, Nahum is an unknown book, never read, and likely never preached from.

Except in my church. Our pastor was preaching on this as part of a series on the minor prophets and I realized that this was at least the second time we preached on this book. I spoke on the book in the summer of 2015, and, if you care, you may listen to that sermon. Having both listened to preaching on this book and studied it myself, I understand why it may not be included in either lectionary.

Basically the book is on the fall of Nineveh, and the empire of Assyria, the superpower of Nahum’s day, that had conquered and obliterated the northern tribes of Israel, leaving Nahum and those in Judah as subject vassals. Chapter one announces the fall in a song of praise to God. Chapter two graphically describes the battle against Nineveh and its fall to Babylon. Chapter three is a dirge describing the carnage of bodies and the devastation of Nineveh. The most troubling thing about this book is that Nahum doesn’t seem troubled. Nahum’s name means “comfort” and this picture of the destruction of an evil empire was comfort, perhaps grim comfort, to the people of Judah. Everything that happened to the Assyrians, and more, they had done at the height of their power against other nations including Israel. Their fall meant a respite from trouble.

You can see why those who put lectionaries together would omit Nahum. It poses too many uncomfortable questions in ascribing the ultimate cause of Nineveh’s fall to God’s avenging anger and portraying a prophet of God who is what I have described as “grimly satisfied” with the outcome.

Yet my pastor wondered, and I join him in this, what has been lost in this omission? For one thing, I encounter many who wonder why God does not do more against the evils they see around them. When a physician who abused scores of female athletes had to face those he abused and both be publicly shamed as he heard accounts of the damage his abuse wrought, and then was sentenced to die in prison, did anyone think he had been treated too harshly? I will confess to indulging in mental fantasies about what ought to have been done to him that should not be committed to print.

I can’t help but wonder if what is lost is the gritty reality of a God who is far from impotent to deal with evil, and a spirituality that cannot be reduced to niceness but has room for the expression of what seems unseemly, and yet is a reality of human experience. Actually, we often want it both ways–we want God to deal with evil in the abstract, we just don’t like the idea that he might actually do so. We want to pretend that we are wonderful, good people, and yet gloat or, even celebrate, when some evil is vanquished, even if it means the death of the person or people doing that evil. Sometimes we are filled with rage when we witness injustice, and we at least imagine doing unspeakably wicked things to the objects of our rage.

Is church a place where we can go with this kind of jumble of “stuff”? I suspect many Black churches were and are. They are places that understand lament for the evil around us. They are places that talk about the hate that wells up within us, and give voice to that and then speak of the greater power of love to overcome. Books like Nahum give permission and models for expressing the unseemly things that we might think don’t belong in church. We may want to ask whether our lectionaries and our endlessly happy praise songs have sanitized “church” and in the process created a kind of unreality disconnected from the world outside the building doors. Is a church that has gutted expressions of anger toward God about rampant evil, a church that doesn’t know how to lament, and a church that has tried to domesticate God, a place that can help people deal with the dark underbelly of life? What happens when people can’t express to God, and their spiritual community such things?

These are where my thoughts go when I wonder about the omission of Nahum from our lectionaries. . . .

The Month in Reviews: February 2018


Looking over the list of books I reviewed in February, I once again had the sense of “so many good books; so little time.” From James K. A. Smith’s Awaiting the King at the beginning of the month to Ron Chernow’s magnificent Grant at the end, there were a number of works I found myself the better for reading. Washed and Waiting helped me understand what it was like for a Christian young man to come to terms with a gay orientation and choose to live a celibate life. Still Evangelical? explored a painful question many of us who have identified as evangelical wrestle with. Do we continue to do so, and if so, how? Delivered from the Elements of the World explores how Christians can make the audacious claim that the death and resurrection of Jesus changes everything. The Myth of Equality is a challenging look at the idea of race in America and white privilege by a white pastor. The Greater Trumps concerns not our first family but a Charles Williams (one of the Inklings) supernatural thriller. Those are just some of the good things I read this month.

awaiting the king

Awaiting the King (Cultural Liturgies, Volume 3), James K. A. Smith. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017. A theology of public (and not just political) life exploring both how public life is “liturgical” and the church “political” and the possibilities and limits on engagement in the life of the “city of Man” for those who identify their hope and citizenship with the “city of God.” (Review)

washed and waiting

Washed and Waiting (revised with new Afterword), Wesley Hill. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2016 (originally published in 2010). An updated narrative of a celibate, gay Christian man, including thoughts about the recovery of the place of celibacy and the importance of spiritual friendship. (Review)

The Reckoning

The Reckoning (Welsh Princes #3), Sharon K. Penman. New York: Ballantine Books, 1991 (Link is to a different edition). Brings to a close the struggles between Wales and England under Edward I, the complicated relationship between brothers Llewellyn and David ab Gruffyd, and tells the story of the women who loved them–a true tale of love and loss. (Review)


Still Evangelical? Mark Labberton ed. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2018. Ten ethnically diverse evangelical “insiders” explore whether to still identify as “evangelical” and what that means in light of the 2016 election. (Review)

delivered from the elements of the world

Delivered From the Elements of the World, Peter J. Leithart. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2016. An exploration of why Christians claim the death and resurrection of Jesus is the decisive event in human history, because it is the “delivering verdict” of God against human systems to control sinful human flesh, hence an act with socio-political significance for all peoples. (Review)

the good retirement guide 2018

The Good Retirement Guide 2018, Allan Esler Smith, ed. London: Kogan Page, 2018. A wide-ranging guide exploring everything from financial planning to housing to health to business and personal pursuits for residents of the UK approaching retirement. (Review)

resurrecting religion

Resurrecting ReligionGreg Paul. Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2018. In an era when religion has a bad name, the author proposes that what we need is not “no religion” but the kind of religion that James writes about, and that his church is trying to live out. (Review)

the myth of equality

The Myth of Equality, Ken Wytsma. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2017. A white pastor explores the reality of white privilege from the perspectives of both American history and the gospel of the kingdom and how white Christians might pursue justice. (Review)

Called to create

Called to CreateJordan Raynor. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2017. A view of creative, entrepreneurial work as a good calling from God, and the challenges and opportunities of pursuing entrepreneurial work for the glory of God. (Review)

The Greater Trumps

The Greater TrumpsCharles Williams. New York: Open Road Media, 2015 (originally published in 1932). An legacy of a singular pack of tarot cards that correspond to images of the Greater Trumps arranged in a dance on a platform of gold in the retreat of a gypsy master drives his grandson to risk love and life to uncover the powers of the cards. (Review)

Essential Writings of Meredith G Kline

Essential Writings of Meredith G. KlineMeredith D. Kline (Foreword, Tremper Longman II; Biography, Meredith M. Kline; Introduction, Jonathan G. Kline). Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2017. A collection of articles by Meredith Kline spanning Genesis to Revelation, and the author’s academic career characterized by biblical insight and theological integrity within a Reformed perspective. (Review)


GrantRon Chernow. New York: Penguin Press, 2017. A biography on the life of Ulysses S. Grant from his Ohio childhood, his years of failure in business, his rise during the Civil War, his presidency, and later years, including the completion of his memoirs as a dying man. (Review)


FavorGreg Gilbert. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2017. 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. (Review)

Best Book: Hands down the nod goes to Ron Chernow’s Grant. Grant was a person worthy of a big book, which this is. Yet I wish Grant would have lived longer, if for no other reason than Chernow may have needed to write an even longer book. The text itself was 960 pages and yet I felt that it never dragged, that there was never too much. Chernow gives the lie to Grant as a butcher in the Civil War, and a more nuanced perspective on a presidency often associated with corruption. And we learn that perhaps the most heroic thing Grant did was write his Memoirs, winning the battle to finish this work while dying painfully of mouth and throat cancer.

Best Quote: I deeply appreciated this passage from Washed and Waiting as speaking of the journey all of us, and not simply those who are LGBT, are on in the life of faith:

“More and more, I have the sense that what many of us need is a new conception of our perseverance in faith. We need to reimagine ourselves and our struggles. The temptation for me is to look at my bent and broken sexuality and conclude that, with it, I will never be able to please God, to walk in a manner worthy of his calling, to hear his praise. But what if I had a conception of God-glorifying faith, holiness, and righteousness that included within it a profound element of struggle and stumbling? What if I were to view my sexual orientation, temptations, and occasional failures not as damning disqualifications for living a Christian life but rather as part and parcel of what it means to live by faith in a world that is fallen and scarred by sin and death.”

What I’m Reading:  I’m reading several books on science and faith. One is Charles Hummel’s The Galileo Connection, which has sadly fallen out of print but is marvelous both for demonstrating that science and Christian faith are really not at war, and how that is possible. A brand new book that covers similar ground but explores cutting edge issues of cognitive science and technology is Greg Cootsona’s Mere Science and Christian Faith. I’ve had the privilege of getting to know Greg through a Fuller Seminary-funded program that seeks to promote a better conversation about science and Christian faith among emerging adults, and I think he is one of the most thoughtful writers and speakers on this subject. Evolution and Holiness also touches on this theme in a novel way, exploring the research on altruism in sociobiology and considering Wesleyan practices that promoted holy living and how these might intersect–a connection I would never have considered. American Academic Cultures surveys the history of higher education in the United States, suggesting it might be understood in terms of seven “cultures” that have succeeded one another. The Kingdom of God Has No Borders is an exploration of evangelical missions over the last seventy or so years. It is always fascinating to see how a researcher narrates a history you’ve been a part of. Later this month I plan to dig into Biblical Leadership (Kregel), a study of leadership throughout scripture to which a number of scholars contribute, including several friends!

Friends of mine once wrote a book titled Read for Your Life. I find my life immeasurably enriched and enlarged through books like these, and indeed, that reading is a spiritual practice. I hope some of the books you’ve learned about here will be enriching and enlarging to you as well!


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.

Review: Grant


GrantRon Chernow. New York: Penguin Press, 2017.

Summary: A biography on the life of Ulysses S. Grant from his Ohio childhood, his years of failure in business, his rise during the Civil War, his presidency, and later years, including the completion of his memoirs as a dying man.

Many people know the work of Ron Chernow from his great biography, Alexander Hamilton, which served as the basis of the Broadway play, or his biography, Washington: A Life. Chernow has done it again in this biography of Grant, which will likely raise Grant in the rankings of presidents, and establishes Chernow as one of the premier presidential biographers. I honestly can’t say enough good about this book. It is rare to come to the end of 960 pages and wish there were more. I have his Washington: A Life on my TBR pile and will move it up!

Chernow gives us a Grant caught between the ambitions and expectations of father, father-in-law, and socially ambitious wife. It is little wonder in some ways that he struggled with drinking, which Chernow explores throughout the book. Grant quietly resigned from the Army in the early 1850’s likely because of drinking problems on a backwater post in the Pacific northwest. He was a failure at farming a plot of land provided by his father-in-law, and unhappy running a store owned by his father under his younger brother in Galena, Illinois, and continued to struggle with drink. One heroic aspect of Grant’s life was his gradual mastery of this problem during the Civil War (with occasional lapses) and in his presidency (where he remained sober) and later life. The vigilance of his aide, John Rawlins, and wife Julia certainly helped, but Grant’s own eventual mastery is evidence of the resolute nature of this man.

Chernow explores the complicated nature of this man, who seems a bundle of contradictions. He could keenly recognize the opportunities of a battlefield situation and the outlines of grand strategy that led to victory after victory culminating in Appomattox and yet could not assess the character of his closest associates, who often betrayed his trust, in war, in his cabinet, and at the end of his life, when he was bankrupted by Ponzi-schemer Ferdinand Ward.

He could seem like someone with low energy and little drive until a crisis, where he would remain calm, and give decisive direction. He was the first general Lincoln found who would take the fight to the enemy and ruthlessly prosecute it to the end, gaining the reputation of being “Unconditional Surrender” Grant. Then he grants magnanimous peace terms to General Lee and his troops, for which many gave him their undying respect. In later life, touring Europe, he at once dazzled people with his grasp of military history and strategic concepts, showing far more brilliance than people credited, and yet he had no desire for reviewing troops, having seen more than enough of this in his time.

His presidency as well was a bundle of contradictions. His administration was a mix of men of integrity, and corrupt friends, who tainted his reputation as their corruption became evident. Most noteworthy, and a theme of Chernow’s was his vigorous efforts both during the Johnson administration, and in his presidency, to protect and extend Reconstruction, including Black voting rights and office holders, while healing the rift with the South that led Frederick Douglass to write this in summary of his career: “In him the Negro found a protector, the Indian a friend, a vanquished foe a brother, an imperiled nation a savior.” John Singleton Mosby, a Confederate general wrote on learning of his death: “I felt I had lost my best friend.”

In addition to Reconstruction, his skill in avoiding war with Great Britain over the Alabama, turning it into an occasion to cement the alliance with Great Britain we enjoy to this day, his management of the nation’s finances in paying down war debt, and his fostering of economic growth outshine the corruption of his associates, who he defended at first, but then dealt with when evidence was clear that they had betrayed his, and the public’s trust. His administration was probably better than the taint of scandal that has come down to us. As Chernow notes, he loved his friends too well rather than wisely.

He was a man of few words, except when unbending with close friends. His orders and his speeches were models of clarity and concision. Yet this same man, dying of cancer of the throat accomplished the stupendous feat of writing the 336,000 words in his final years, finishing them just before he died. Many critics consider the Memoirs the one of the greatest works of this genre, described by Chernow as written in a “clear, supple style.” Apart from minor changes of punctuation and grammar, he needed little editing. Writing this work, motivated in significant part to provide for his family after the financial debacle with Ferdinand Ward left him nearly penniless, was perhaps the most courageous act of his life, as he struggled on in great pain and increasing weakness. He finished the work on July 16, and died a week later on July 23, 1885 at age 63.

All this, and so much more, you will find in Chernow’s Grant. Chernow, while cognizant of Grant’s faults, doesn’t bury Grant’s greatness in his failings. He proposes that there is far more to this General and President than we have credited. And as a writer, he celebrates another writer, whose Memoirs are going on my reading list!