Review: Partners in Christ

partners in Christ

Partners in Christ, John G. Stackhouse, Jr. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2015.

Summary: A case by a convert to egalitarianism for why both complementarians and egalitarians find scriptural foundations for their views with a proposal for what can make the best sense of the diverse testimony of scripture.

There may be some of you who read this review who may wonder, “what’s the big deal–of course women should be able to do anything men do in the home and the church–and perhaps more because they are also able to bear and nurse children.” But in certain circles within evangelicalism, this is a live issue and subject of both popular and theological writing. John G. Stackhouse, Jr., who once held a “complementarian” position (one that recognizes role distinctions between men and women in marriage and limits the roles women may exercise in leading and teaching in the church), describes his own movement to an “egalitarian” position (that there are no fixed role distinctions for men and women in marriage, nor limits as to the role of women in leadership and teaching in the church) and the theological method that led to his conclusions, amid the diverse biblical texts and conflicting interpretations:

“We should not wait to come to a theological conclusion for the happy day in which we have perfectly arranged all of the relevant texts. Instead, we should look at all of the texts as open-mindedly as possible, and see whether among the various competing interpretations there is one that makes the most sense of the most texts and especially the most important ones. We should look, in basic epistemological terms, for the preponderance of warrants or grounds to believe p instead of q. If no such preponderance is evident, of course, then we should suspend making a decision. But if we do conclude that a preponderance is discernible, then we should acknowledge it–indeed be grateful for it–and proceed to act on that basis” (p. 31).

Stackhouse recognizes a preponderance in what would be considered “control texts” for an egalitarian view–from Genesis 1 to Galatians 3:28. He would understand the rise of gender role distinctions and patriarchy as a consequence, not of creation, but the Fall of humanity. Yet he also recognizes a certain “doubleness” in scriptures, sometimes within the same passage (as in Ephesians 5:21-33, where verse 21 commends mutual submission, and then the following  verses commend distinctive role behaviors for husbands and wives) that serves as foundation for the concerns of complementarians. Is there a way to understand this “doubleness” that does not involve scripture contradicting scripture and that addresses the concerns of both egalitarians and complementarians for biblical integrity? Stackhouse thinks there is.

He finds this in the recognition of the church’s missional priorities of proclaiming the gospel within Roman culture, and their expectation of the imminent return of the Lord. This is a culture with clearly defined role distinctions for men and women along patriarchal lines, as well as for masters and slaves. Stackhouse writes,

“So it would make sense—given gospel priorities, holy pragmatism and eschatological expectations — for the apostles to teach a policy of cultural conservatism (“Get along as best you can with the political powers and social structures that be”) in the interest of accomplishing the one crucial task: spreading the gospel as far and as fast as possible. And they do”  (p, 56).

He would contend that, while we find in Paul and others the seeds of egalitarian relationships in marriage, and roles for women in teaching and leading, even in his own missionary teams, the presence of scriptures that recognize role distinctions reflect a kind of holy pragmatism that realizes that the advance of the gotspel is of higher priority than leading a revolution in gender roles, or upending slavery. However this also brings him to the conclusion that in a society that upholds egalitarianism, the opportunity is to practice the full liberty found in germ form in the testimony of scripture. Perpetuating gender role distinctions now may hinder the gospel, even as promoting egalitarianism would have New Testament times.

Stackhouse deals thoughtfully with counterarguments that may be posed from theology, church history, and contemporary experience and practice. He addresses fears about inclusive language in translations, and boundaries in terms of language used of God. One of his most thoughtful chapters is on why women do not lead. He concludes with a plea for women to continue to speak into his life about his “enduring sexism” while still assuming personal responsibility for it.

I suspect Stackhouse’s book satisfies neither committed egalitarians nor complementarians. Egalitarians may feel the book opens the door to those who would advocate patient waiting, even in our present day. Complementarians may still be unconvinced that gender role distinctions are a consequence of the fall. The book is silent on implications for parallel discussions within Catholic and Orthodox circles. Yet for others, who consider the impasse between the two sides in this evangelical discussion a scandal, Stackhouse’s irenic and biblically grounded approach offers at least a meeting ground for those no longer interested in battling over gender roles. His tone of humility, both in matters of interpretation, and in coming to terms with the implications of his understanding of scripture for how he partners with women in ministry, is an example other men may wish to heed.

There may be some who wish to argue with the author in comments on this review. First of all, please realize that this is my summary of the author’s argument, which I hope is an adequate reflection in much abbreviated form. Second, if you really care about this, I urge you to read his book and engage with him directly. Above all, I hope that wherever we come down in this discussion, we will practice the humility and openness to change modeled by this author.

Review: Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives

Jesus of Nazareth the Infancy Narratives

Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy NarrativesPope Benedict XVI (translated by Philip J. Whitmore). New York: Image, 2012.

Summary: A study of the gospel accounts of the annunciations, the infancy, and boyhood of Jesus of Nazareth.

I read this over the Christmas holiday and found this a wonderful study on the narratives surrounding the birth of Christ. The work, by Pope Benedict XVI (Joseph Ratzinger) combines careful scholarship with devotional reflectiveness that evidences deep reflections on the details of these gospel texts in Matthew, Luke, and John. What follows are some of the details I had either not noticed or thought about in the ways Benedict describes.

The work is the final volume in the Pope’s Jesus of Nazareth series. He begins with the question of the identity of this infant, posed in John 19:9 by Pilate. He notes the differing geneologies of Matthew and Luke and their purposes emphasizing the fulfillment of the Abrahamic and Davidic promise, and Luke’s which emphasizes the one who represents all of humanity. One lovely detail was the focus on the four women in Matthew’s geneology, none of whom were Jewish and all considered “sinners” yet through them came this child,

The second part covers the annunciation narratives, comparing and contrasting them. I had not thought before of John’s descent from a priestly line, the forerunner of a new priesthood inaugurated in Jesus. I also appreciated the focus on Mary’s response of seeking understanding, holding the word in her heart, and her “yes” to God. Benedict suggests that in one sense, she conceived this child through her ear, taking in Gabriel’s (and the Lord’s) word. Benedict also affirms the historicity of the virgin birth and links this to the resurrection as the two great miracles of Christianity.

Benedict then turns to the actual birth of Jesus and his presentation in the temple. Again, his attention to small, yet meaningful details struck me: the manger for the one who would be our bread, our food, the birth of the son of David among shepherds, and the angelic announcement. Benedict translates “men of good will” as “those with whom God is pleased,” which he connects to the Father’s statement about his beloved Son, with whom he is “well pleased.”

The last portion focuses on the visit of the Magi and the flight to Egypt. He discusses their identity and the star. He then makes the observation that the star (or confluence of heavenly bodies) brought the Magi to Jerusalem but they needed the scriptures, God’s revelation, to help them find the child in Bethlehem.

This short work ends with an epilogue discussing Jesus remaining behind in the temple as a twelve year old. Benedict observes the reply to Mary’s “your father and I were looking for you.” Jesus says, “didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house.” Even here is a hint of his divine-human awareness, that it is God and not Joseph who is his father. Benedict goes on to discuss the idea that Jesus must be there–a sense of his mission, and a foreshadowing of the other “musts” that would take him to the cross.

While Benedict shows his awareness of the biblical scholarship and discussions around these texts, he does not allow scholarship to overtake theological reflection on the finer details of the text. One has the sense of being invited to stop and take a closer look with him, a look that leads to wonder and joy, which Benedict would observe is a good translation of the word for “Hail!” As I write, the season of Christmas has not yet passed. And even if you cannot read it this year, then have it on hand for next Christmas.


The Month in Reviews: December 2017

a book for hearts and minds

It has been fun to welcome a number of new followers to the blog in the last month. If that is the case for you, this is your first time to see a “month in reviews” post. Just a few words of orientation. One is that you can see all my reviews by month by going to “The Month in Reviews” on the menu. The idea of “The Month in Reviews” is to give you a quick summary of my reviews, particularly any you might have missed. The link embedded in the book title takes you to the publisher’s site for the book. At the end of the summary is another link that will take you to my full review of the book. I also choose a best book and best quote of the month, and give you a preview of what I will be reviewing soon. So with that, here’s what I reviewed in December.


Mark Through Old Testament EyesAndrew T. LePeau. Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2017. The first in a series of commentaries looking at the Old Testament background of the New Testament text, with attention to the meaning of structural elements in the text, and the practical implications of the text for Christians and churches. (Review)

shadow country

Shadow Country, Peter Matthiessen. New York: Modern Library, 2008. A condensation of the Watson trilogy, giving three different renderings of the life and death of Edgar J. Watson, a planter, and notorious alleged murderer, of the Ten Thousand Islands area of southwest Florida. (Review)


Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic FutureAshlee Vance. New York: Ecco (HarperCollins), 2015. A biography of the brilliant and flawed tech entrepreneur involved with SpaceX, Tesla, and his visions for the future of humanity. (Review)

The American Spirit

The American Spirit: Who We Are and What We Stand ForDavid McCullough. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2017. A collection of addresses given by the author articulating some of the defining and distinctive qualities that define America at its best. (Review)

Created and Creating

Created & Creating, William Edgar. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2017. Explores the idea of “culture” from secular and Christians perspectives, explores the biblical basis for the culture mandate and continued cultural engagement, and the arguments raised against this idea. (Review)

Living Wisely with the Church Fathers

Living Wisely with the Church FathersChristopher A. Hall. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2017. An exploration of what we might learn from the church fathers about lives well lived, touching on everything from martyrdom to entertainment. (Review)

Transforming Grace

Transforming Grace, Jerry Bridges. Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2017 (book originally published in 1991, study guide, 2008). A comprehensive study of the nature of grace and the experience of grace throughout the life of the believer accompanied by a study guide for group use. (Review)

the book of esther

The Book of EstherEmily Barton. New York: Tim Duggan Books, 2017. An alternative historical fiction in which a Jewish daughter of the Kagan of Khazaria breaks with her father and convention to lead her people in battle against the invading German army in 1942. (Review)

becoming a pastor theologian

Becoming a Pastor TheologianTodd Wilson & Gerald Hiestand (eds.). Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2016. A collection of papers from the first Center for Pastor Theologians conference in 2015 focusing on the identities, historical examples, and biblical engagement of pastoral theologians. (Review)

A Disruptive Generosity

A Disruptive GenerosityMac Pier. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2017. Thirty-one stories of entrepreneurial business leaders whose strategic stewardship of their lives and their money have resulted in transformed lives and cities across the globe. (Review)

History of the World

A Little History of the WorldE. H. Gombrich, translated by Caroline Mustill, illustrated by Clifford Harper. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005. A history of the world, written for children, by a famous art historian and illustrated with woodcut drawings. (Review)

Choosing Donald Trump

Choosing Donald Trump, Stephen Mansfield. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2017. Written just after the election of Donald J. Trump to the presidency, this book explores his character and formative influences, what his appeal was to the voters who elected him, and a call for the church to exercise “prophetic distance” in its relationship with this and all presidents. (Review)


President McKinley: Architect of the American CenturyRobert W. Merry. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2017. A biography of McKinley’s life, from Civil War hero to Canton attorney, congressman, governor,  and to a presidency ended by an assassin’s bullet, arguing he was a far more consequential president than usually credited. (Review)

a book for hearts and minds

A Book for Hearts and MindsNed Bustard (ed.). Baltimore: Square Halo Books, 2017. A collection of essays on different academic disciplines and topics, honoring the work of Hearts and Minds Bookstore on over three decades of connecting thoughtful readers with serious books. (Review)

Best Book: This is a tough call. I really appreciated Andrew T. LePeau’s new commentary, Mark Through Old Testament Eyes which opened up new dimensions of Mark to me and is a great resource for anyone studying and/or teaching this book.  Living Wisely with the Church Fathers lived up to the promise of its title in introducing some of the best insights of the church fathers into what constitutes a well-lived life. Robert Merry’s President McKinley gave me a greater appreciation for the president who was born and grew up within fifteen miles of my home. I could easily choose any of them but will go with A Book for Hearts and Minds, edited by Ned Bustard. The essays of thinking Christianly on a number of topics were concise examples of the good work that needs to be done, I loved the book recommendations, and most of all, the celebration of the work of Byron (and Beth) Borger, of whom the former publisher of InterVarsity Press said, “We think that Byron Borger is the best bookseller in America.” Seems fitting that my “best book” for December should be about the best bookseller! May his tribe increase!

Best Quote: Since my best book was on books and reading, I decided to choose this quote from David McCullough’s The American Spirit on his advice to Boston College grads:

“Read. Read, read! Read the classics of American literature that you’ve never opened. Read your country’s history. How can we profess to love our country and take no interest in its history? Read into the history of Greece and Rome. Read about the great turning points in the history of science and medicine and ideas.

Read for pleasure to be sure. I adore a good thriller or a first rate murder mystery. But take seriously–read closely–books that have stood the test of time. Study a masterpiece, take it apart, study its architecture, its vocabulary, its intent. Underline, make notes in the margins, and after a few years, go back and read it again (pp. 147-148).”

What I’m Reading: I just finished up several books for review. One is Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, which is a wonderful study by Pope Benedict XVI. John Stackhouse, Jr’s Partners in Christ, is a thought-provoking case for an egalitarian view of gender roles that seeks to address the concerns complementarians raise in a proposal he argues best explains all the relevant texts in this discussion. An Introduction to Worldview is designed to serve as a college textbook on worldview thinking. I’m sinking my teeth into a more academic treatment of the discourses of Jesus in Mark titled The Rhetoric of Jesus in the Gospel of Mark by Strickland and Young. I’m savoring Edith M. Humphrey’s book, Further Up and Further In. Humphrey is brings an Eastern Orthodox perspective to this study of Lewis.  I enjoy the historical fiction of Sharon Kay Penman and have been reading Falls the Shadow over Christmas vacation, on the conflict between Henry III and Simon de Montfort. I reviewed one book on the theology of creation this past month and am starting another by Sean McDonough titled Creation and New Creation. A couple other fun things on the “to be read” pile is a book on the recent “Ice Bucket Challenge” and a Christmas gift, Candace Millard’s Hero of the Empire, on the young Winston Churchill. I’ve liked everything I’ve read by Millard and Churchill is one of my “heroes,” so I’m looking forward to this!

Happy new reading year!

Bob on Books Tips For Reading Well in 2018


Man Reading, Vaino Hamalainen, 1897

Among the resolutions people make each year is some variant on “read more books.” That’s certainly a goal that I can applaud when the average number of books read by adults is 12 a year (a number skewed by avid readers; most read about 4 a year). But I have a hunch that many of these resolutions fare no better than those of losing weight or exercising more, and probably for the same reasons: lack of specific goals that are realistic, forming a habit, social support and a good coach. I will come back to these but I want to address something I hear less about–reading well.

For a number who read this blog, I don’t have to convince you about the value of reading, and in many cases, you already have good reading habits and exceed that book a month average. And even if you don’t, you probably sense that reading isn’t about numbers of books but part of a well-lived life. You read not only for amusement or diversion but to better understand your world and how to live one’s life in it. That can be anything from understanding the inner workings of your computer and how to use it better to a work of philosophy or theology or even a great novel that explores fundamental questions of life’s meaning, living virtuously, or the nature of God.

So a few thoughts on reading well, and then a few tips for those who do want to read more:

  1. Reading well is an act of attentiveness. We read well when we read without external and internal distractions. A place of quiet and a time when we are not distracted with other concerns helps us “engage the page.” It also helps to turn off the notifications on your phone or tablet, or better yet, put the electronics in another room. Read on an e-reader without other apps if you prefer these to physical books.
  2. Visual media often encourages us to passively absorb content. Books of substance require our active engagement–noticing plot, characters, and the use of literary devices like foreshadowing, allusions and more. Non-fiction often involves following an argument, and paying attention to the logic, the evidence, and whether the argument is consistent. Reading well can mean jotting notes, asking questions, or even arguing with the author. Above all it means reflecting on what we read, and how the book connects with our lives.
  3. Reading well over time means choosing good books to read. What is “good”? I’m not sure there is one good or simple answer. There are a number of “great books” lists out there and they are worth a look. You might choose one of those to read this year. One test of a book’s worth is whether people are still reading the book and finding value in it long after its author has passed. Also, in almost any genre, there are reviews, websites, and online groups. Over time, you will find sources of good recommendations.
  4. Finally, I’d suggest choosing something to read off the beaten path. Reading authors from other cultures, or a genre you don’t read can stretch your horizons. This year, I want to work in some poetry and get around to the Langston Hughes and Seamus Heaney that I’ve had laying around.

And now a few thoughts for those who simply want to read more and get into the reading habit.

  1. Set a realistic goal. Rather than focus on numbers of books, figure out where you can regularly find 10-15 minutes a day to read. You probably spend more time than that on social media. Do you know if you read 15 minutes a day, you will end up reading 15 books a year?
  2. Start with something you like. Don’t choose something others say you should read if you don’t think it is interesting. Choose something you’ve always wanted to read.
  3. Try doing this for a month–15 minutes a day with reading you enjoy. The idea is to form a habit. I started an exercise routine taking 5 minutes a day, then gradually expanded it. Forming the habit was the most important part.
  4. Finding some friends who read, or are trying to, and getting together to talk books can help. Many of us find exercising with others helps. Reading and talking books can work the same way.
  5. Finally, get a good coach. I have a number of friends who work with personal trainers or life coaches. But book coaches? Where do you find those? I’d start with a local bookseller or librarian. Any of them worth their salt can learn about your reading interests or topics you’d like to read about and suggest some good things to read.

I mentioned that finding good sources of book reviews can help you find worthy books that you will love. Hopefully Bob on Books will be one of them. My goal in writing reviews is to tell you enough about a book to help you decide if it is something you will want to read, or just something it’s good to know about. I’m looking forward to digging into the books on my “to be read” pile and telling you about them. To reading well in 2018!

Your Favorite “General” Posts of 2017


President Donald J. Trump. Photo by Gage Skidmore, CC BY-SA 2.0

The tagline on this blog is “thoughts about books, reading, and life.” A great deal of my posts are reviews of books and I previously have posted my “Best of 2017” book recommendations as well as my “Most Viewed Reviews,” the ones my followers are most interested in. This blog has also been the home of my “Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown” series of posts on my home town of Youngstown, Ohio. I recently posted a “Favorites of 2017” list for this series as well.

The rest of my posts, which I term “general” here are on “reading” and “life.” The posts that garnered the greatest attention generally concerned matters of faith and politics, particularly the scandal of evangelical political captivity, and trying to articulate how Christians might engage political life in a way consistent with a biblical faith. There were also a few posts on reading that you liked, which is gratifying since a major purpose of this blog is to encourage reading, particularly works of worth. So here is the list of your favorite “general” posts, ordered by number of views.

10. Two posts tied for this. Should We Let This Prisoner Out of the Academic Dungeon? focused on the isolation of theology as an academic discipline from other disciplines of study and the mutual learning that could occur if these were permitted to engage with each other. My Response to #MeToo was my attempt as a white male to respond to this growing movement of women (and some men) speaking out against the sexual harassment and assault of women by men, evoked by the fact that some #MeToo posts were by close friends and colleagues.

9. The Battle to Read? picked up on author Philip Yancey’s observation that he was reading far less, and fewer works that demanded focused attention and was the lead off post of a three part series on how to make substantive reading a greater part of our lives.

8. The Dangerous Practice of Reading in Bed explores the once-reputed dangers of reading in bed and explores what kinds of reading might be helpful or unhelpful in our last waking moments of each day.

7. Christian Scholars Review was a feature on one of the journals whose articles and reviews on the connection of faith and scholarship I’ve long appreciated.

6. The Evangelical Penumbra? reflects on a phrase in a recent Ross Douthat op-ed in the New York Times, in which I realized that the way I understand an evangelical faith is on the margins of American evangelicalism as it presently exists and how I come to terms with that.

5. The Scandal of the Church in America: Part Two was the second of a two-part series (the first appears appears below) on the divided American church which mirrors the country’s divides and what I believe must be done if we are to become a people who help heal the country’s wounds rather than deepen them.

4. Leave the Label But Not the 81 Percent considers the movement of many who in the past identified as “evangelicals” to distance themselves from this identifier either in language or affiliation as a result of the finding that 81 percent of Whites identifying as evangelicals voted for President Trump.

3. Legal But Immoral; Moral But Illegal explores through the lens of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the dilemma of what we do when faced with the choice of obeying immoral laws or engaging in acts one would believe moral, but are illegal. Many who aided fugitive slaves faced this dilemma, as do those in the contemporary sanctuary movement. This was one of those posts that continues to get a number of views.

2. The Scandal of the Church in America: Part One focuses on the deep divides in the American church and recalls another time when this was so, the years leading up to the Civil War and proposes that we have a role to play, one way or another in America’s divisive civic life, either to inflame or to heal.

1. Praying for a President You (Don’t) Like was posted shortly before the inauguration of Donald J. Trump to the presidency. This was not the person I wanted in the presidency (that person didn’t make it out of the primaries) and yet scripture commands me to pray for political leaders. I expressed how I would pray, then wrote a follow-up post for friends who struggled with praying for this president titled “When We Can’t Pray for Leaders We Don’t Like.”

For the most part, pretty serious stuff. But I suspect you might agree that these are serious times–that it is vital to understand the times we live in and how then we shall live in those times. As a Christ-follower, I believe my calling is to be found faithful and vigilant in such times and to help others live such lives. I hope this blog serves in part to fulfill that calling, through what we read, and how we live. I have no clue what 2018 will bring, but I hope to keep writing about worthy books, ideas, and lives well-lived. Thanks so much for reading and following in 2017!

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Where We Spent New Year’s Eve

dancing at the idora ballroom

Dancing at the Idora Ballroom, Source Unknown

This is a crowd-sourced post. You see, I just don’t have very colorful stories about where I spent New Year’s Eve. Most years, it was with my family and relatives at our home. Lots of food, “mature” beverages for the adults that we usually got at least a sip of (!), and Guy Lombardo on the TV. I remember a college party at a friend’s house where a number of us from our youth group spent the evening playing games, eating pizza, and just hanging out.

It struck me that others of you might have memories of other places, and so I put out a comment in some different Youngstown Facebook groups, and sure enough, you reminded me of all the great places people celebrated New Years Eve. Surprisingly, there were a number of you like me who celebrated with family at home–lots of good food, cards, drinks, laughter, and ringing in the new year.

Probably the classiest were the dances at Stambaugh Auditorium’s ballroom and, in its day, the Idora Park Ballroom. Someone said that during the ’70’s the best New Year’s Eve was out at Yankee Lake. For others, it was a dinner and dance at one of the local ethnic social halls like the old Italian American on South Meridian Road or the Saxon Club. Some of these are still going strong. “Pudge” posted: “Aut Mori Grotto on Belle Vista ave, 30 bucks a couple, food, music, dancing, 50/50, grotto milk, byob, open to the public.” (I’d confirm before you go.)

A number of parishes had, and still have, New Year’s Eve dinners and dances. St. Stanislaus has an early mass followed by sauerkraut dinner, dance, champagne toast (and home by ten, according to the person posting this. Others mentioned St. Mary’s on South Belle Vista, and St Brendans. I’ll bet there were a number of other parishes that did the same thing.

Some people went out to restaurants, or cafes, or bars on New Year’s Eve. On the classier end, there were places like the Living Room, the Colonial House, and the Brown Derby in its heyday. Ambrosio’s on the North side in the ’70s would have fancy parties that included a breakfast. Others mentioned the Sunnyside Cafe, the Youngstown Club, Rip’s Cafe in Struthers, and the Motor Bar. I suspect there were places all over town like this.

Holiday Bowl and the Wedgewood Lanes combined music, dancing, and bowling that could be fun for the whole family. One person wrote about being at the Holiday Bowl when she was 21, dancing and listening to the Ramsey Lewis Trio. It was fun to learn that both of these places are still in business, but I could not find out what their New Year’s Eve plans were for this year.

It has been a growing trend for hotels to offer New Year’s Eve packages with dinner, dancing, drinks, and a hotel room so you wouldn’t have to go out on the road after all that partying. The Holiday Inn on South Avenue in Boardman is one of the places that would offer such packages.

In recent years, many more cities including Youngstown have been offering First Night programs, usually downtown with a schedule of activities at various venues for the whole family. Here’s a schedule of events for this year.

I’d love to hear how you remember celebrating New Year’s Eve in Youngstown. And however you celebrate, stay safe and be safe for others so that we can keep the conversation going in 2018!

Review: A Book for Hearts & Minds

a book for hearts and minds

A Book for Hearts and MindsNed Bustard (ed.). Baltimore: Square Halo Books, 2017.

Summary: A collection of essays on different academic disciplines and topics, honoring the work of Hearts and Minds Bookstore on over three decades of connecting thoughtful readers with serious books.

What better way to honor perhaps the best Christian bookstore in the country for over thirty years of service to the Christian community than a festschrift of essays featuring the likes of N. T. Wright, Gregory Wolfe, David Gushee, Calvin Seerveld, Mike Schutt, and others writing on topics and disciplines with which they are intimately acquainted and sharing their own recommendations of the books they think are best or were most formative for them on that topic. That’s just what Byron and Beth Borger, the proprietors of Hearts and Minds Bookstore have been doing, even before there was a bookstore.

The opening essay gives Byron’s own account of the store’s beginnings:

“My wife and I started a bookstore. We’re still trying to figure out how to keep it afloat, but overall it’s been a long and fun journey.

In the late seventies, I worked in campus ministry and part of what it emphasized was working with students. I worked with students at a small branch campus of Penn State, mostly engineering majors. I would invite them to think Christianly, as we say, and talk about the relationship of their faith to their sense of calling. I was always passing out books—you’re a Christian nurse, here’s something on healthcare, you’re going to be a scientist analyzing evolution, here’s a Christian philosophy on this or that—and students would say
to me, you should have a bookstore! Finally I realized they were right. Part of my passion was connecting people with resources they might use in their own spiritual development, but particularly as that related to living out their faith in the work world.”

Following this opening essay are eighteen others organized in alphabetical order from Art (Ned Bustard) to Vocation (Steve Garber). Each of the essays combine personal narrative with thoughtful insights on thinking Christianly about the topic at hand and conclude with recommendations by the authors of some of the books they think the best on the topic or most formative for them. It was really fun seeing what books N. T. Wright would recommend and almost every essay had at least one book recommendation of something I’d not read and would like to pick up. So many good books and so little time!

A few essays stood out for me. One you might not expect to find in this collection but which sparkled was Andi Ashworth’s on “Cooking” and her thoughts on food and feasting together, as well as some interesting cookbook recommendations (something to file away for gifts for my wife who has an extensive collection of cookbooks!). Working in ministry in higher education, I found G. Tyler Fischer’s essay on “Education” of interest in asking the question, “what is education?” and his proposal that “[e]ducation is the process of imparting the knowledge and skills needed to live as a full and loving member of a community.” I’m friends with Mike Schutt and have heard him mention Harold Berman’s works, but his recommendations convinced me that Berman has probably thought more deeply about the nature of law and its relationship to religion than anyone. I found myself identifying deeply with Karen Swallow Prior’s love for stories and was intrigued by the idea she gained from Milton about reading promiscuously (an interesting twist on the work promiscuous!). I appreciated the clear thinking of Michael Kucks on what it is that scientists do and how he thinks Christianly about scientific work.

I could go on, but I hope this enough to encourage you to get this book, and hopefully to buy it at Hearts and Minds Bookstore. Like at least one of the essay authors, I have never visited the store, nestled in a small town in the hills of eastern Pennsylvania. However I’ve met Byron presiding over truly impressive tables at a couple of conferences and witnessed first hand his ability to listen to someone and then recommend what he thinks are the best books that person could read related to his or her interests or questions. I’ve also ordered books from him, which always come carefully packaged, and speedily shipped. Many of you have discovered this blog on his Hearts and Minds Facebook page where he graciously permits me to post reviews. We share a love of connecting people with resources they might use to think and grow “Christianly.” I also look forward to reading his blog, BookNotes, which puts me onto worthy books I’ve missed. I ordered Marilyn Chandler McEntyre’s Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies, after reading about it on BookNotes, and it was one of the finest books I’ve read in years!

This is the closest I get to contributing an essay in tribute to the important work Byron and Beth have pursued so faithfully for over thirty years. I salute Ned Bustard and Square Halo Books for putting together this delightful festschrift. And as you think about the books you would like to add to your “to be read” pile, I hope you will do what I have so often urged, and “buy them from Byron.” That would be fitting tribute, indeed!


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: President McKinley


President McKinley: Architect of the American CenturyRobert W. Merry. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2017.

Summary: A biography of McKinley’s life, from Civil War hero to Canton attorney, congressman, governor, and to a presidency ended by an assassin’s bullet, arguing he was a far more consequential president than usually credited.

My home state of Ohio holds the distinction of producing the most presidents, and many would also say, the most mediocre presidents. In many rankings of presidents, William McKinley is included in this number.  He is often portrayed as the colorless pawn of Cleveland industrialist Mark Hanna. Robert Merry is one of those who would argue that he was far more consequential as a president, and able as the nation’s leader than he is often credited.

Merry’s account traces his life from its beginnings in Niles, Ohio, the family move to Poland, Ohio, near Youngstown, from where he enlisted to serve with the Union army in the Civil War. It is often not known that he rose from private to major during the war, based on his meritorious and occasionally heroic service, notably at Antietam, where as quartermaster, he made his way through enemy lines and fire to bring rations to his pinned down unit.

Legal studies followed his war service and a move to Canton, which he called home for the rest of his life. It was here where he courted and married Ida Saxton, and sadly buried two daughters, Katherine and Ida, both dying of typhoid fever in childhood. After the second daughter dried, Ida began to have epileptic seizures, and the biography recounts the struggle McKinley lived with between his political ambitions and his lifelong devotion to her care. He was rarely far from her side, although some of the doctors he worked with may have caused her more harm than good with their bromides.

McKinley’s rise in politics followed a defense of mine workers involved in a clash with strikebreakers. Even though mine owner Mark Hanna was on the opposing side, McKinley’s conduct of the case caught his attention. Hanna became a backer of his political ambitions, first in Congress, where he became an expert on tariff policy, later as state governor, and finally as president in 1896. Merry chronicles the divided Republican party in Ohio at this time, and McKinley’s shrewd efforts to gain control of it from his rival, Joseph Foraker. This introduces a quality Merry notes that runs through McKinley’s presidency as well, that quietly and assiduously, McKinley worked to achieve the outcomes he wanted, often against more fiery and public opponents.

McKinley was elected in 1896 adhering to the gold standard against William Jennings Bryan’s “cross of gold” rhetoric. As president, his tariff policies and economic conditions and growth in the gold supply led to a booming economy. Like many presidencies, circumstances beyond his control created challenges to which he responded in ways that expanded American power and influence. He accomplished the annexation of Hawaii through a joint resolution of Congress when approval of a treaty of annexation appeared doomed, projecting American presence into the Pacific. While trying to avoid war with Spain until findings (later considered dubious) attributing the explosion on the Maine to hostile Spanish action made war unavoidable, he prosecuted war diligently, leading to defeats of the Spanish navy in the Philippines and in the Caribbean, and the seizure of Santiago, Cuba, and the island of Puerto Rico. In the settlement with Spain, Cuba gained independence, and Puerto Rico and the Philippines became American territories, making America an imperial power. He also nurtured the Hay-Pauncefote negotiations that renegotiated agreements with Great Britain, fostering a closer relationship between English-speaking peoples that cleared the way for the U.S. to build a canal in Central America.

In consequence, McKinley easily won a second term, though both William and Ida longed for a simpler life in Canton. McKinley refrained from personal campaigning in both, relying on an increasingly sophisticated political machine and surrogates to do the work on his behalf, including “Rough Rider” Teddy Roosevelt, who had been nominated his running mate. Six months into his second term, which he had announced would be his last (presidents were not then limited to two terms except by custom), anarchist Leon Czolgosz fired two bullets at close range into McKinley at the head of a receiving line at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York. Though seriously wounded, McKinley interceded with agents to show restraint in their efforts to subdue the assassin. He died of infection after initially rallying, putting Roosevelt, a very different leader, into the presidency.

Merry argues that while not a visionary nor dynamic leader, McKinley was an effective president who, for good or ill, expanded American power including the size of its army and navy, a shrewd politician whose party would occupy the White House for sixteen years, and who presided over the economic growth that propelled the United States into world leadership at the beginning of a new century, an American century, aided by a growth oriented monetary policy. His youthful heroism, his personal integrity, and devotion to Ida commend our attention. He was criticized, notably by the Democrat-oriented William Randolph Hearst, for his association with Mark Hanna, yet no president is elected without the support of such figures, and Hanna combined both resources and organizational skills, along with a genuinely warm personal relationship with McKinley. Yet in matters of patronage and policy, McKinley listened to Hanna, but also others, and made decisions on his own terms.

Whether or not you agree with Merry’s case for McKinley, you will find this a highly readable and extensive biography. My own suspicion, as well as Merry’s, is that McKinley has been overlooked because of the far more dynamic president who followed him. Yet he was elected to the presidency twice in an era of one-term presidents, a claim even Roosevelt could not make, and fulfilled his office with dignity, competent leadership, and honorable character to the very last. In my estimate, he is a president, if not among the greatest, certainly one my state can be proud of.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through Netgalley. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Choosing Donald Trump

Choosing Donald Trump

Choosing Donald Trump, Stephen Mansfield. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2017.

Summary: Written just after the election of Donald J. Trump to the presidency, this book explores his character and formative influences, what his appeal was to the voters who elected him, and a call for the church to exercise “prophetic distance” in its relationship with this and all presidents.

I think it is safe to say that the United States has never seen a president like Donald J. Trump. That may be the one thing both those who support him and those who oppose him agree upon. When I came across Mansfield’s book, I wasn’t sure what I would encounter. However, I had read his fascinating narrative (reviewed here) of the Guinness family and the beer that bears their name, and so I thought I would take a chance on this book. There are several reasons I’m glad I did.

But first for an overview of the book. Mansfield begins with the unlikely rise of Trump, and the puzzling phenomenon of his defeat of a huge Republican field, with many candidates of accomplishment, character and religious faith, and then his defeat of a Democratic candidate who had probably spoken of her own religious faith more extensively and thoughtfully than most candidates. Though apparently religiously illiterate while claiming faith, known for sharp business practices, serial marriages, and sexually crude language about women and allegations of sexual impropriety, he managed to get elected with 81 percent of whites identifying as “evangelical” voting for him. Mansfield explores his background, and particularly the profound influence his father had upon his boy, who he nicknamed both “King” and “Killer,” raising a young man who always believed he must win, and for whom ruthlessness toward that end was warranted. Both military academy and early business associations with lawyer Roy Cohn deepened the killer instinct of this man who thought he must be king.

Oddly, this utterly secular, ruthless young man nevertheless had religious influences. The pastor who most influenced him was Norman Vincent Peale, with his theology of positive thought. For a young man relentlessly driven to pursue success to win the father approval he never knew, this was the ideal “theology,” one that brooked no possibility of failure or defeat, but believed that you could eventually do what you dream. Peale’s death left a religious vacuum in his life filled by evangelical prosperity televangelist Paula White, who Trump first met around 2000, who helped gather a group of pastors to pray for him in 2011, as he was grappling with a decision to run, counseling him that the time was not yet, and who now chairs his evangelical advisory council. She prayed at his inauguration, vigorously defends him as a born-again Christian, and has helped gather support of key evangelical leaders.

In the third part of the book, Mansfield turns from the formative influences in Trump’s life, past and present, to the factors, that propelled Trump into the White House. He speaks of the growing concern of evangelical leaders of Obama administration decisions that both violated moral convictions and policies that were encroaching on religious liberties. A pivotal point for Trump was when he realized the role the Johnson Amendment played in silencing evangelicals in the pulpit who wanted to speak out against these policies and support those who opposed them. He made overturning this amendment his rallying cry in support of religious liberty. He also offered an alternative to a candidate on one hand far more religious, and yet one whose statements about gay rights, in support of Planned Parenthood, and lack of engagement with evangelicals suggest to these evangelical leaders that things would only get worse in her administration. The result was support of Trump, likened to King Cyrus, a pagan king who yet accomplishes God’s purposes in liberating the Jews from exile. Finally, Mansfield briefly discusses how Trump proclaimed himself the “voice” of white working-class people struggling in the Obama economy, saying things people only felt free to say at dinner tables and working class bars.

The last part of the book discusses the relationship of religious leaders around the presidency and advocates a stance Mansfield calls “prophetic distance.” He describes how in the early years Billy Graham was seduced by presidential access and the decisions he later made:

Graham’s conclusion about his ministry was telling. After all of his years of friendships with presidents and being asked to comment on politics, he finally realized, ‘I have one message” — the gospel. He decided in his later years that he could have done more good by speaking his truth to presidents and politicians than by allowing himself to be pulled into their orbits, thus dissipating his message” (p. 137).

He then highlights the example of Paul Marc Goulet’s International Church of Las Vegas, and his Latino co-pastor Pasqual Urrabazo, who met Trump at a meeting at Trump Tower and told Trump of how offended he was about the things said of Hispanics and how wrong he was on immigration policy. Trump asked to meet his people and attend his church. Goulet did not give him the pulpit but allowed him to visit the church’s school, where he met former Vegas gang members. Goulet later said, “I won’t endorse candidates. But I will give them a chance to hear truth and see it in action. I will show them a picture of what, with God’s help, they might be.” This is what Mansfield believes the religious leaders who have gained access to Trump must do, or they will pay a great price.

As I mentioned, I liked this book for several reasons. One was that it was neither a hagiography or a screed, but a nuanced treatment of Trump, although I would have appreciated a stronger treatment of the element of racism in Trump’s appeal. The background of Trump’s life helped me realize this is both an extraordinarily driven, and yet wounded individual, that even at his father’s funeral had to talk about what his father would have thought of him. I also appreciated the chapters on the religious influences in his life. In particular, I had not appreciated the role Paula White has and continues to play in his life (see this recent story in the Washington Post). Finally, his advocacy of a role of “prophetic distance” for religious leaders who have access to the president is one I think important.

What the book doesn’t answer is whether those around the president have the breadth of vision that addresses the prophetic concerns of the Old Testament prophets for the poor, the stranger, and the marginalized of all ethnicities, and warns against the idolatry and materialism of the rich as well as advocating for a pro-life ethic and other concerns most popular among conservative evangelicals, including concerns for sexual morality in word and action.  What those who do enjoy this access to the president must consider, as Mansfield notes, is that they will face a great reckoning for how they have used this access. For the rest of us, whatever we think of the evangelical advisers around the president, it suggests they are worthy of our prayers, and perhaps our own prophetic engagement as their brothers and sisters.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.


Review: A Little History of the World

History of the World

A Little History of the WorldE. H. Gombrich, translated by Caroline Mustill, illustrated by Clifford Harper. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005.

Summary: A history of the world, written for children, by a famous art historian and illustrated with woodcut drawings.

E. H. Gombrich was best known as an art historian whose most well-known work is The Story of Art. In 1935, while unemployed, a publishing acquaintance asked him if he would look at a children’s history book with the idea of translating it into German. Gombrich did, and responded that he could probably write something better himself and was invited to submit a chapter. He wrote one on chivalry. Here is how the published version begins:

“I am sure you have heard of knights of old from the Age of Chivalry. And you have probably read books about knights and their squires who set out in search of adventure; stories full of shining armour, plumed helmets and noble steeds, blazoned escutcheons and impregnable fortresses, jousting and tournaments where fair ladies give prizes to the victors, wandering minstrels, forsaken damsels and departures for the Holy Land. The best thing is that all of it really existed. All the glitter and romance is no invention. Once upon a time the world really was full of colour and adventure, and people joyfully took part in that strange and wonderful game called chivalry, which was often played in deadly earnest” (p. 137).

Gombrich ended up writing the whole book in six weeks. Late in life, after the formation of the European Union in 1990, he agreed to update his work in English translation, and added a chapter on world events in his lifetime, including the horror of the Holocaust, working with translator Caroline Mustill.

As you may sense, Gombrich is a story teller which, as both Barbara Tuchman and David McCullough have noted, is basic to the good writing of history. Gombrich gives us enough of the significant factors and people behind events without becoming laborious. Chapters are short, five to ten pages in length.  Woodcut illustrations and maps at needed points complement the readable text.

Of course, a work of this size has to be a selective history of the world, but Gombrich’s account extends from pre-historic eras to the beginnings of civilization in Egypt and the Middle East, Jewish history, the Persians and Greeks, India and Chinese history, Rome, the beginnings of Christianity, the zenith and fall of the Roman empire, the Middle Ages, the rise of cities, Renaissance, Reformation, the age of discovery, wars and the rise of modern states in Europe, World War 1, and then the Second World War, holocaust, and the bomb. Along the way are chapters on literacy, chivalry, and machines. The focus is European history while touching on important developments in the Americas, India, China and Japan. There is almost nothing about Africa. All this reflects a work written for European school children. Someone writing today might have included more material on ancient Central and South American peoples and African tribal life. Yet as an account helping European students understand the history that shaped Europe, it makes total sense.

I think this the perfect book for an adult who finds themselves wanting a basic sense of the flow of human history. Many of us weren’t paying attention in our history classes, or they weren’t presented in such an interesting fashion. Even for history lovers, this might suggest periods of history you’ve overlooked. I realized that I really haven’t read much medieval history — the period between the fall of the Roman empire and the Reformation is pretty much a blank for me. Above all, in Gombrich we have a deeply thoughtful, gentle, and clear voice introducing us to the human story through the ages, which is the story of us all.