Review: The Religion of American Greatness

The Religion of American Greatness, Paul D. Miller (Foreword by David French). Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2022.

Summary: A conservative’s critique of Christian nationalism, distinguishing it from patriotism, and making a case against it both biblically and as an illiberal theory that is at odds with the American experiment of a constitutional democratic republic.

What first caught my attention with this book is that it is written by a White, theologically conservative, Afghanistan war veteran who served in the George W. Bush White House and at the CIA as an intelligence analyst, is pro-life, lives in Texas, and reads the Declaration of Independence to his kids on the Fourth of July. He is also a Georgetown University professor who offers a scholarly treatment that both carefully explains Christian nationalism on its own terms and offers a well-supported critique of it, both as a Christian and as a patriot who passionately believes in the American experiment.

He begins as all good academics by discussing what nationalism is and differentiates it from patriotism, which he supports. He offers this definition:

“Nationalism is the belief that humanity is divisible into internally coherent, mutually distinct cultural units which merit political independence and human loyalty because of their purported ability to provide meaning, purpose, and value in human life; and that governments are supposed to protect and promote the cultural identities of their respective nations” (p. 5).

He then looks at the American version of this, arguing that the particular cultural identity that American nationalists seek to protect is Anglo-Protestantism. What is problematic with this is that cultural identities have blurry boundaries that don’t align with political boundaries. The consequence is illiberal forms of government that marginalize and disadvantage ethnic, religious, linguistic, and other cultural groupings, treating them as second class citizens. Far from promoting national unity, this results in fragmentation and division.

The Christian, evangelical version of this takes a universal faith and weds it to identity politics, reducing it to a tribal faith rather than a faith for every tribe. Miller spends a good deal of time discussing the concepts of “nations” and “peoples” in the Bible and argues that the template of Israel cannot be used to uphold the United States as a uniquely chosen nation under God. He concludes that Christian nationalism is a form of idolatry. He traces the uneasy tension between nationalism and republicanism throughout the history of the Christian right.

Whereas other commentators of a more progressive bent automatically associate Christian nationalism with racism, Miller focuses on the illiberality of nationalism in how it thinks about race, inequality, and naming and remedying the sins of the past. Some may consider this a distinction without a difference, but I appreciate the measured tone and the focus on consequences rather than on the labels we apply.

He discusses the embrace of the former president’s form of Christian nationalism and its attraction for White evangelicals. One of the most telling aspects of this discussion is the suspicion of elites as well as the fear of elite efforts to restrict religious expression. I’ve experienced that in university ministry where universities used institutional power to attempt to restrict access of religious groups on campus (and I met the contributor of the foreword, David French, in conjunction with standing against these efforts). I observed the condescension with which religious convictions were treated. I chose to love those who treated me as an enemy but I can understand how this sense of grievance can be played upon to oppose and defeat “progressive elites,” something I think few progressives really grasp. Miller observes that “while conservatives are proud of their bubble, progressives deny they are in one.”

Miller concludes in arguing that national identity is not bad–we just need a better story than nationalism, one rooted in our history that both celebrates our ideals, especially as they have distinguished us in practice, as well as our ugly failures, that inspire us to overcome and strive for a better future. He argues for a kind of open exceptionalism in which we hold the nation up to the light of our high ideals combined with Niebuhrian humility that faces our national sins and failures. He believes pastors can do a better job in careful teaching that gives the lie to the idea of America as the new Israel, chosen of God and thinking beyond specific issues as to how to engage politically in a pluralistic society and the duties of responsible citizenship.

Miller is self-aware enough to recognize that many Christian nationalists won’t read his book. I hope some will because they will meet someone who actually cares about much of what they care for, who genuinely loves America, and is equally critical of progressives for their own brand of illiberalism. He writes as one who sees the religion of American greatness as an idol, a counterfeit version of the great vision of our faith of God’s love for all the nations of the earth. Miller is unwilling to see it reduced to one puny White evangelical tribe identified with a mere vision of national identity.

He also sees nationalist efforts, Christian or otherwise, as incongruous with our national experiment of a constitutional form of democratic republicanism. He alludes to writing not only a similar critique of progressivism but also a book outlining his ideas of a “framework of ordered liberty.” I hope he gets to write both of those books, but especially the third, which I think will offer great help for all of those who want to think politically beyond the issues that so often divide us.


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

Review: Struggling with Evangelicalism

Struggling with Evangelicalism, Dan Stringer, Foreword by Richard J. Mouw. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2021.

Summary: Traces both the author’s personal struggles with evangelicalism and a four step process of healthy struggle involving awareness, appreciation, repentance, and renewal.

If anyone can claim bona fide evangelical roots, Dan Stringer can. He is the biracial son of missionary parents, living in five different countries on three continents during his youth. He embraced the worship music and lingo of evangelical youth ministry in the 1990’s. His undergraduate degree is from Wheaton and one of his graduate degrees from Fuller Theological Seminary. He is ordained in the Evangelical Covenant Church denomination and serves as a team leader for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. There is much he appreciated in this background, and as the years went on, much with which he struggled–political partisanship, racism (why do only whites use this label, typically?), a history of colonialism in his own state of Hawai’i, the ways women have been treated, and the celebrity leader culture.

For Dan, help began as he was able to distinguish between evangelicalism as a “brand” that suffers a poor reputation, and evangelicalism as a space that includes over a half a billion people globally, involving collective responsibility for its care, access from a broad range of people, and opportunity for relationship across divisions, even for those who don’t fit the brand.

As Dan continued to wrestle with ways to address his struggles and wrote and interacted with others, he arrived at a four step process that he unpacks in his book. The steps are:

  1. Awareness. Many who have been part of evangelicalism don’t understand how we got here, so understanding our history and what distinguishes evangelicals from other Christians (and even appreciating that evangelicals are just one part of the larger Christian family) is important. Following a rubric developed by Kristen Kobes Du Mez he discusses evangelicalism as a theological category, a cultural movement with its own particular “style,” a White religious brand (many Black, Latino, and Asian Christians in the U.S. share theological beliefs with evangelicals but don’t share the “brand”), and a diverse global movement. He also discusses what distinguishes the brand from the space. Awareness also includes faith stream awareness, which has to do with how our particular group’s tradition has been formed through its history and location, allowing us better to appraise our strengths, weaknesses, and resources for renewal.
  2. Appreciation drills down on strengths. Stringer defends the decision to focus on appreciation before repentance. Strengths remind us how we got here, the ways God has been faithful, and reasons to hope that what is broken can be redeemed. It’s not an occasion for triumphalism, but a basis for hope and reminder that there is goodness, as well as brokenness in who we are. We remember things like our love for scripture, our experience of God’s presence, our commitment to the whole mission of God, the fellowship of believers, our focus on Christ, and our freedom in him. We remember grace that has brought us this far as both saints and sinners. And it points us in directions where we may strengthen our strengths.
  3. Repentance. Stringer invites us into communal repentance, adding to our sinner’s prayer a sinners’ prayer (where one places the apostrophe is important). The baptism of Jesus by John was a baptism of repentance and yet Jesus had no sins personally to repent of. This was an act of communal repentance. When we repent communally, we listen to others to understand the damage we’ve caused and don’t use a “not all of us” defense, but rather use collective terms to acknowledge our identification with these wrongs, we cry out for God’s deliverance, and begin to take steps befitting our repentance.
  4. Renewal. This section begins by bluntly facing the question of whether evangelicalism is worth renewing. There is not a time before racism in American evangelical history. There are abuses of power and patriarchy to which we would not return. He acknowledges that, for some, it is not their task to renew evangelicalism, whether because of the severity of their wounds or the fact that they have been pushed out. Stringer says that one need not cease to be a follower of Jesus, a Christian, should they decide to leave evangelicalism. Christianity is larger than evangelicalism. But he also offers reasons to seek renewal: to reduce harm and toxicity, to offer and model hope that persists through faith and doubt, to reflect God’s heart rather than the values of worldly empires, and finally to once again offer a credible and compelling witness in the world.

This last speaks powerfully to me. I’ve seen people delivered from addictions and broken relationships and communal hatreds when they encountered Jesus. The gospel of Jesus has been at the heart of movements to abolish slavery and community development ministry. It is at the heart of our love for scriptural preaching and the conviction that a word from God is powerful to transform. These have been strengths and, sadly, we have forgotten them or lost confidence in the work of God evident in them, substituting worldly power, worldly agendas, worldly wealth, and worldly wisdom for the foolishness of the powerful gospel.

I also am grateful for the space Dan Stringer makes for people still wrestling with whether to stay or leave. At one point, he includes a letter to “exvangelicals” (look up #exvangelical on Twitter if you want to learn more). It’s not a letter of criticism or exhortation to return, but one of repentance, that simply acknowledges the wrong done and that we (not they) may listen better. He offers appreciation without triumphalism, repentance without defensiveness, and a hope for renewal without grandiosity. His process offers a way through anger, turmoil, grief, and cynicism toward health, whether it is healthy engagement in a collective responsibility to leave things better than we found them, or how to live constructively as one decides what one’s place inside or outside this movement will be. For me, it has articulated “what it takes to stay.”


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: No Border Land

no border land

No Border Land, Tom Graffagnino. Grand Rapids: Credo House Publishers, 2020.

Summary: A prophetic call to a world without moral or spiritual borders, to a lukewarm, compromised church, concluding with a vision of the beauty of the Christian hope rooted in the cross.

Tom Graffagnino is an artist and writer whose work I first ran into on Facebook. Often his response to posts, including some of mine, was a poem, often with a simple rhyme scheme, some clever play on words, and a prophetic “bite.”

This work combines a series of jeremiads lamenting the state of a “no border land” culture, and a lukewarm, compromised church in its first two parts concluding with a proclamation of the hope of the gospel centered in the work of the cross and God’s gift of grace.

A few samples of his writing:

Singer, Sanger, Kinsey, Leary,
Joseph Campbell, Jung, and Freud…
Prophets of New Paganism,
Heroes of the coming Void.

Marx ‘n’ Nietzsche, Kundalini
Foucault-Fun for Me and You
Listen!…Sweat Lodge Kali-calling,
Stir that New, Old Pagan Brew
. . .
Welcome to the heart of darkness,
Stand with us on sinking sand.
Place your bets on “good intentions.”
Welcome to No Border Land.

This is the opening poem and typifies the play on words, the literary allusions, the sarcastic bite of his verse, clothed in a simple rhyme scheme that runs throughout.

If anything, Graffagnino is tougher on a church that he sees is infatuated with celebrities, theologically and morally flabby, making a god it wants, a “moral therapeutic deity.” In Theraeutic Puppy Dogma, he writes:

Welcome to our Puppy Dogma
Quite the soft and cuddly sight,
Waggy-taily, always friendly…
And this Dogma doesn’t bite!

Here’s religion we can hang with,
Here’s a good God to enjoy!
Puppy Dogma co-existing,
Quite laid back…a real good boy!
. . .
Bottom line, he’s reassuring
He’ll make sure you’re feeling good!
He’ll come running when you whistle…
Like good Puppy Dogmas should!

There is a shift in tone in the third and final section, “Living Waters Living.” Graffagnino both acknowledges our spiritual destitution, and the wonder of the cross and the grace of God. In one of the poems in this section, he proclaims:

There’s a Living Word at work here,
Yes, true Language from the Heart…
There’s a Maker, there’s a Reason,
There’s a Romance from the Start.

Listen closely…there’s true Meaning
That transcends the world we’re in…
There’s a Lover who is waiting,
Christ who overcomes our sin.

He’s the Perfect Lamb, a Person,
He’s the Plan you may have heard,
God’s incarnate, Son and Bridegroom…
His proposal’s in the Word.

Each of Graffagnino’s poems is accompanied by one or more quotes by writers like G. K. Chesterton and C. S. Lewis that underscore the ideas in Graffagnino’s poems. It seemed to me that each enhanced the other.

If you are looking for a work of great poetry, I would suggest this isn’t that work. Truthfully, much of the work in the prophets, particularly the Minor Prophets, wasn’t of the highest literary quality. Graffagnino’s writing serves a different function, one much like these prophets, to hold up an uncompromising mirror, both to an unbelieving culture and a church of watered-down belief. He’s also like the unflinching doctor who doesn’t spare our feelings when telling us the truth of our condition and what will bring us healing. In doing so, his poetry soars to its most elevated as he considers the wonder of the gospel.


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

Review: What is Man?

What is man

What is Man?Edgar Andrews. Nashville: Elm Hill, 2018.

Summary: An exploration of the answers different worldviews come up with to the question of what it means to be human, making the case for a Christian view of humans descended from a historical Adam who was created in God’s image, through whom sin entered the human race in the fall, and for the redemption of all who believe through the second Adam, Jesus Christ.

The question of who we are, and our place on Earth and in the cosmos, is perhaps one of the most important questions that we face. The author of this work, Edgar Andrews, an emeritus professor of Materials Science, looks at three of the possible answers on offer today–that we are evolved from the family of Apes, that we (or our predecessors) arrived here from an alien world, or that we were created by God, descended from a historic Adam.

The book consists of three parts. The first considers our place in the cosmos, and perhaps did we come from somewhere else? He considers the origins of the cosmos, and whether it is possible for the cosmos to be self-generating and he describes the search for extra-terrestrial life and the absence of any substantive finding, albeit many worlds have been identified that may be candidates for such life. He lays out a form of the “fine-tuned universe” argument advanced by Sir Martin Rees, and the counter explanations of multiverse theories. All of this suggests at very least that our existence in the cosmos may be a fairly singular event begging explanation.

The second part of the book explores man and the biosphere, that is, evolutionary explanations for our origins. He raises a number of questions about our descent from the apes in terms of the distinctiveness as opposed to the commonality of our respective genomes and he contends that paleontology has very little conclusive to tell us about our forebears. Finally, in one of the more fascinating chapters of the book, he discusses the challenging question of how human consciousness is to be explained. Using the analogy of a house, he discusses materialist, epiphenomenalist, and dualist explanations and contends that humans were created with material bodies and a nonmaterial, self-aware mind.

In part three, Andrews considers the biblical account of what it means to be human. Beginning with a discussion of worldview, and how we know what is real, he contends that the Biblical account warrants belief as being consistent with our understanding of ourselves and the cosmos, has made accurate predictions of future events, passes tests of historical accuracy, and leads people into transformative experiences of God through faith in Christ. The remainder of the book then unpacks this Biblical world view of a sovereign and immanent creator God, human sin, accountability, and the person and work of Christ. He argues for a historic Adamic couple from whom we are all descended, against other explanations of our progenitors, and what it means for us to be in the image of God distinguished as creatures of soul and spirit, language and logic, creativity and competence, and law and love. The book then concludes with two chapters on Christ as the second Adam and the evidences for Christ’s resurrection, and the implications of this truth for our salvation and eternal destiny.

Andrews writes about fairly technical scientific material in clear, and sometimes witty, language, using readily understood analogies. I find it a bit puzzling that he at times uses scientific arguments (the Big Bang and Fine-Tuning) to advance his argument and then turns around and is utterly skeptical and questioning about anything to do with the evolution of human beings. I would have liked to see more engagement with scientists like Francis Collins, who not only see God’s design in the human genome, but also do not see evolution as antithetical to the creative work of God, or even a historic Adam.

Rather than attacking evolution, I think it would have been more helpful to attack the underlying worldview of evolutionism, a worldview that assumes there is nothing more or other than the material world, and that only what may be confirmed empirically is real or true (of course this statement itself cannot be confirmed by such means!). Such assumptions not only preclude the activity of God in creating but also in sustaining the world. There are many who study evolution who see the hand of God at work, as they do in other “natural” processes. Andrews seems to suggest they have to choose between their science and their faith.

Nevertheless, this book addresses an important question, and eloquently describes the human dignity we enjoy as creatures in the image of God, and the wonder of Christ’s redemptive work, and the joyful destiny of those who partake of his redemptive work and the power of the resurrection in salvation, Christ’s living rule over his people, and the certainty of his return. Christian teachers and apologists will find this helpful–particularly, I think the discussions about fine-tuning, and about human consciousness as well as his delineation of what it means to say we exist in “the image of God.”


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

Review: Scars Across Humanity

scars across humanity

Scars Across HumanityElaine Storkey. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2018.

Summary: A description of the global crisis of violence against women, possible explanations, and the measures being taken to address different forms of violence.

Selective abortion and infanticide. Female genital mutilation. Early, forced marriage. Honor killings. Domestic violence. Sex trafficking and prostitution. Rape. Sexual violence in war. From the Congo, Egypt, Pakistan, southeast Asia, to the metropolitan centers and suburbs of Europe and North America, there is a pandemic of violence in various forms against women–most of it perpetrated by men.

One of the signal contributions of this work, written by Elaine Storkey, an advocate for women, is to rigorously document this pandemic, describing specific instances as well as the overall prevalence of the forms of violence against women listed above. Some of the descriptions are graphic and heart-breaking of women facing debilitating physical injuries and psychic scars of the violence done against them. Nine of the thirteen chapters in this work delineate the extent and nature of this violence. Her comments on the effectiveness of gender-based violence as a tactic of war that “inevitably hits the target” is chilling.  Along the way, Storkey reports on efforts being taken in advocacy, law, and support to address the violence, much of it after the fact. Much remains to be done. For example, Storkey notes that “603 million women live in countries where domestic violence is still not a crime.”

All of this begs the question of why is this so universally a part of the human experience (a “scar across humanity”) and particularly why is violence against women so pervasively a male behavior? Three chapters explore evolutionary, patriarchal, and religious explanations. Each, to some extent, offer some explanation for this behavior but none are completely satisfying, and none can be used as a warrant to ever justify violence. A problem that I saw with the chapter on religion is that it focused exclusively on Islam. I felt a broader treatment would have been more even-handed and would avoid feeding anti-Muslim stereotypes (although she does describe movements defending the rights of women within Islam).

The final chapter on Christianity and gender acknowledges the sad history of patriarchy and a turning of a blind eye to domestic violence in the church but also notes how scripture gives warrant for the dignity, equality, and full partnership of women in marriage and the church, and no warrant for any form of violence. She notes the “texts of terror,” but argues these are descriptive rather than ever prescriptive. Finally, Storkey traces the root cause of gender based violence to human rebellion against God–sin. She writes:

“At a far deeper level than either ‘biology’ or ‘culture,’ then, ‘sin’ helps us explain the ubiquity of violence against women. We are responsible. Patriarchal structures are a product of human choices and attitudes; oppression and brutality are rooted in the power sin exercises in human communities. A Christian theology of sin places accountability for attitudes, culture and actions firmly on human shoulders; we have to own what we create” (p. 223).

This is good a far as it goes, and I would agree with everything here, but I found her brief treatment less than satisfying in explaining why violence against women is a preferred male expression of our fallen sinfulness, particularly in light of her extensive treatment of evolutionary and patriarchal explanations. For this, Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen’s Gender and Grace goes into far greater depth.

Storkey’s book is an important one for men to read. This cannot remain a women’s conversation. As men, we need to own what we have created and face our collective “heart of darkness” and the tragic mayhem we have wrought across the globe, from date rape to femicide. We need to own that we are the reason that no girl or woman from eight (or earlier) to eighty can live without fear in our presence. This book faces us with the ugly consequences of the abuse of our masculinity and challenges us to join our mothers, sisters, and daughters as advocates and allies rather than aggressors. It challenges us to live redemptively, joining with Jesus, who elevated the status of women throughout his ministry.


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.

Stolen Identity


“I’m a patriot, I will help the President build the Wall, I have an A+ rating with the NRA, I’m pro-life and I am a conservative Christian.” This is a mash-up of language I’ve heard in our most recent primary election and it deeply offends me. I feel like I’m a victim of identity theft.

My real beef is with the very last word of this statement. Why? I am a Christian. And I feel like my identity has been stolen, or at least misappropriated in statements like this.

Sure, while logically you can argue that such a statement doesn’t intend to identify all these positions with Christian orthodoxy, there is the implication that if you are the right kind of Christian, you will believe in these things and vote for this candidate.

Please understand. I do not question the Christianity of those who would affirm these things, or the genuineness of the faith of candidates who use this language. I even agree with them on some things. But I do not like the implication that this version of patriotism, or being pro-gun, or pro-life, or anti-immigrant is what those who are truly Christian will embrace at the ballot box.

Sure, I get it. “Conservative” Christians are perceived as a significant constituency for a particular political party. And for the person wanting to get elected, winning the favor and the votes of this constituency is what it takes.

What troubles me most are not the political positions of the candidates, which they have every right to advance, but the identification of those issues with being a real Christian. The reason I’m so troubled is that I have literally known people who have turned away from exploring the teachings of Jesus because they assume that they will need to embrace these issues along with Jesus. This language may win elections but it loses converts to the Christian faith. I work in ministry with college students and watch kids leaving churches over these things. I work as part of an international fellowship of Christians who often wonder if we love America more than the global kingdom of God.

I’m disturbed by how such language limits both the issues I can care about as a Christian, and how I think about those issues. I don’t like how this rhetoric makes at least a certain group of people captive to a political party. Instead of being able to support on some things and challenge on others, there is a party line that must be adhered to if you are to maintain influence and stay inside the party’s tent, and in some cases, the good graces of one’s congregation.

What do I want instead? I want people to stop using their “faith identification” to get votes. Certainly it is not wrong for voters to know what a person’s faith is, but the identification of Christianity with a set of political issues and positions needs to end. Every time politicians do this, they misappropriate the identity of Christians.

I also believe the church needs to stop allowing itself to be played by politicians. The truth is, we are being used by politicians for the one simple thing politicians care about–getting elected. We’ve allowed leaders inside and outside the church with a political agenda to have greater influence than the whole counsel of scripture from Genesis to Revelation that challenges the positions of every political party and calls us to a far more radical life.

Above all, I want both politicians and leaders in some segments of the church to stop stealing my identity as a Christian for political ends. What it all comes down to is that this is not why Jesus lived, died, and rose. However, the wedding of religion and political power was the major reason why he was killed. Will we continue to sacrifice Christ for political ends?


Review: Faith Unexpected

Faith Unexpected

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Review: Single, Gay, Christian

single gay christian

Single, Gay, ChristianGregory Coles. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2017 (forthcoming August 22, 2017).

Summary: An autobiographical narrative of a young Christian who becomes aware of his attraction to other men, his struggles against this within a Christian context, his experiences of “coming out,” and how he has decided to follow Christ through all of this.

This book had me at the first page. Ordinarily, I wouldn’t quote so extensively, but I know nothing better to give you a sense of Gregory Cole’s story, and of his exquisite writing:

“Let’s make a deal, you and me. Let’s make promises to each other.

I promise to tell you my story. The whole story. I’ll tell you about a boy in love with Jesus who, at the fateful onset of puberty, realized his sexual attractions were persistently and exclusively for other guys. I’ll tell you how I lay on my bed in the middle of the night and whispered to myself the words I’ve whispered a thousand times since:

“I’m gay.”

I’ll show you the world through my eyes. I’ll tell you what it’s like to belong nowhere. To know that much of my Christian family will forever consider me unnatural, dangerous, because of something that feels as involuntary as my eye color. And to know that much of the LGBTQ community that shares my experience as a sexual minority will disagree with the way I’ve chosen to interpret the call of Jesus, believing I’ve bought into a tragic, archaic ritual of self-hatred.

But I promise my story won’t all be sadness and loneliness and struggle. I’ll tell you good things too, hopeful things, funny things, like the time I accidentally came out to my best friend during his bachelor party. I’ll tell you what it felt like the first time someone looked me in the eyes and said, “You are not a mistake.” I’ll tell you that joy and sorrow are not opposites, that my life has never been more beautiful than when it was most brokenhearted.

If you’ll listen, I promise I’ll tell you everything, and you can decide for yourself what you want to believe about me.”

In succeeding chapters, Coles unfolds, often in a self-deprecating yet not self-hating fashion, his growing awareness that he was gay, his silence and attempts to cover this up by dating girls and even of trying to awaken heterosexual desires through them. He describes the scary and wonderful moment he comes out to his pastor, who listens, and loves, and keeps on loving.

We trace with him his journey to reconcile his faith, his orientation, his understanding of biblical teaching, weighing but rejecting “affirming” interpretations, which precludes for him acting on his gay attractions by pursuing intimacy with another man, and what it means for him to believe that God has nevertheless made him good.

He helps us hear what is often said in churches that affirm a “traditional” view from the perspective of a gay person. I cringed here as I read things I’ve said. He also leads us into a broader conversation about sexuality and how the fall has affected it for all of us, gay or straight.

He speaks about his choice to live single, both the heartache, and the joy. He raises the question of views of discipleship that never involve suffering or self-denial. He casts a vision for a life that is full, and has a unique capacity for relationships because of who he is as a gay man. Where the church often sees LGBTQ persons as a threat, Greg helps us see persons like himself as a tremendous gift.

Coles speaks with a voice of conviction without dogmatism. He speaks for himself and his own journey, allowing that others might conclude differently. As he writes in his introduction, he tells us the truth about himself, and lets us decide.  He doesn’t see himself as any kind of role model but simply as a “half-written story.”

I deeply resonated with his comments about encountering the “are you side A or side B?” question. He writes, “I didn’t want to be reduced to a simple yes or no. I wanted a new side.” I find myself deeply in sympathy with him. And perhaps this book might take us a step closer to that new side.


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: The Qu’ran in Context

The Qu'ran in Context

The Qu’ran in Context, Mark Robert Anderson. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2016.

Summary: A study by a Christian theologian of the Qu’ran in its seventh century AD context exploring its teachings in relation to Christian teaching, noting both similarities and points of divergence in the hope of encouraging open and honest dialogue between adherents of these two faiths.

There is a strand of public discourse, drawing both upon the ideas of Samuel Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations, and incidents of terror, that propose that there is a war or clash between Islam and the West, or at least between elements of Islamic cultures and the west. Then there are others who pursue perhaps a quieter conversation proposing that given the clashes that have occurred and a desire to maintain and protect a pluralist society recognizing freedom of conscience and belief, that some effort needs to be made between Christians and Muslims to find common ground. The most newsworthy was a statement by a group of Muslim clerics, “A Common Word,” with responses from other major religious bodies, calling for interfaith dialogue and action based on commonly shared teachings around the love of God and neighbor.

Some who would take the former view criticize, in my view justly, some of the efforts of dialogue that minimize or altogether mute differences or take at face value assertions about Islam without careful textual study. In The Qu’ran in Context Mark Robert Anderson offers a resource grounded in a Christian perspective that seeks to read the Qu’ran both sympathetically in its seventh century AD context, delineating its teachings, noting both similarities with Christian teaching and places where these diverge. He writes:

“My goal of encouraging dialogue should need little justification from a Christian
perspective. The psalmist says how pleased God is when brothers and sisters live together peaceably and the New Testament calls us to do all we can to be at peace with everyone (Ps 133:1-3, Rom 12:18, Heb 12:14). In our global village, that demands dialogue.

But true dialogue does not deny or minimize difference. Rather, it begins with an honest acknowledgement of difference no less than similarity. Without that, we cannot be truly heard and understood. Using the term neighbor in its broadest sense, Jesus commands us to treat our neighbor as we want her to treat us (Mt 7:12; cf. Lk 10:25-37). Paul also counsels us to do good to everyone, Christian or not (Gal 6:10). So we lovingly speak what we hold to be true and graciously listen as our Muslim brother or sister does likewise. And we remain ready, as Peter charges us, to offer a defense to anyone who seeks the reason for our hope, doing so with gentleness and reverence (1 Pet 3:15-16). So our truth telling is to be marked always by kindness and honor for our partner in dialogue—as a Thou, not an It, in Martin Buber’s terms.”

Anderson proceeds along the following lines to do this. Part One of his book looks at the origins of the Qu’ran and the history of Muhammad and his context. It is particularly fascinating to understand the tribal rivalries of the Arabian peninsula in this time and the mix of pagan religion and contexts with Jews and Christians through trade.

Part Two is the longest part and considers what Anderson calls the “Qu’ranic Worldview.” He explores the Qu’ran’s teaching about God, God’s immanence and transcendence, and justice and mercy. He explores Adam’s creation in an extra-terrestrial garden, and his fall, with Satan, and humanity’s reprieve from the judgment of God. He explores the concepts of sin and salvation, the ideas of prophethood, scripture, and revelation, and the devotional, social, and political dimensions of Qu’ranic spirituality. While noting points of similarity, he also contrasts the aloofness of God, the absence of grace, and the differing ways the two faiths engage the political realm, among a host of other differences.

Part Three focuses on Jesus in the Qu’ran: his origins and person, his words and works, his death, and the community he established. He shows how Jesus is both exalted and marginalized such that the supremacy of Muhammad as prophet is maintained. In particular, it highlights bizarre instances of miraculous works by the child Jesus, while showing him deferring to the disciples as an adult. He also explores the conflicting claims he finds in the Qu’ran about the death of Jesus.

Part Four then summarizes the discussion and explores the relation of Bible and Qu’ran, including the claim that the differences between the two may be accounted for by intentional distortions and falsifications by both Jews and Christians (even though these two were opposed to one another for most of the relevant history). He notes three critical biblical themes running through both testaments and contrasts these with the Qu’ran:

  • Friendship with God
  • The free grace of God
  • The humility of God

One place where I could see this work facing criticism is the approach, which Anderson, drawing on N. T. Wright, calls critical realism, approaching the text in its historic context and prevailing worldview. He does not ignore Muslim interpretive traditions, particularly where they differ from his reading of the text, but does significantly background these, while admitting evangelical and reformed presuppositions in reading the Christian scriptures. I suspect this may work fine where lay evangelicals are in dialogue with lay Muslims where the focus is comparative study of texts and discussion, but would be much more nuanced between scholars of both faiths, whose understandings are shaped by a millenia or more of interpretive tradition as well as study of the text in its context.

However, I would commend this as a helpful resource for interfaith discussions in universities and community contexts. It models both grace and forthrightness of approach without a combative spirit. While trying to meet the Qu’ran on its own terms, it doesn’t pretend to be less than what it is, “a Christian exploration.” Also, it demonstrates another truth often discovered through interfaith conversations: that participants may come to a deeper grasp of the contours of their own faith, as well as that of the other, through these encounters.

Might we avert the much touted clash of civilizations? That remains to be seen. Certainly, there will be violence in the name of religion. What Anderson’s book gives us is a picture of the real work and perhaps the harder struggle that must take place if adherents of Christianity and Islam are truly to understand each other’s sacred scriptures and beliefs, to find ways to co-exist, rather than to fight and seek to dominate each other.


Review: The Very Good Gospel


The Very Good GospelLisa Sharon Harper (foreward by Walter Brueggemann). New York: Waterbrook, 2016.

Summary. Through a study of the early chapters of Genesis with application to contemporary life, Harper explores the theme of shalom and how this enlarges our understanding of the good news.

Have you ever felt that there must be more to the gospel? This is a question that Lisa Sharon Harper has struggled with in her own life and for which she found profound answers as she explored the biblical theme of shalom as well as the early the early chapters of Genesis, that begin with a vision of shalom, explore how shalom was broken, and the effects of that brokenness on our relationships with God, ourselves, between genders, in the creation, in families, around issues of race, and relations between nations.

In each chapter, Harper explores the Genesis text, develops the idea of shalom, and through this weaves in other biblical material from both testaments. In the process, she weaves in her own life as a black woman, from a flawed family, experiencing issues with her own self-image, with relationships, and in the journey to pursue racial reconciliation and justice. As she does so, she develops a vision of the gospel that is so much larger than just me and my sin and Jesus rescuing me from hell so I can spend eternity with Him. It is a gospel that explains both God’s incredibly wonderful intention for the world, and how our choice to love something more than God and believe a lie damaged the fabric of relationships, broke shalom. From the sacrifice of an animal in Genesis 3 to the sacrifice of Christ, she explores how God has restored shalom, which is indeed very good news.

The final chapter was the most moving. She talks about death, and her own struggle with dealing with death, including her silence when a close friend lost her father. And she movingly describes the breakthrough she experienced when Richard Twiss, a Lakota Indian ministry leader was dying and she had a vision of anointing his feet with oil, confirmed by a friend who had a similar vision.

     “On the way to the hospital, I read the story of Lazarus and the grave (see John 11:1-44) and felt called to read it over Richard. When I arrived, I learned during the day, Richard’s kidneys had failed. I shared the two visions–mine and my friend’s–with Katherine, Richard’s wife and cofounder of Wiconi. She gave me permission to read the passage over Richard and to anoint his feet. As I read, we all wept. I never noticed this before, but the passage begins with an explanation that Lazarus was the brother of Mary, the woman who anointed Jesus feet for burial. I anointed Richard’s feet and prayed.

. . .

“I can’t help but think back to the moment when I anointed Richard’s feet. It is clear now. We were anointing our brother’s feet for burial. As I moved the oil over his feet, I repeated the words that Richard’s editor had said to me when we talked earlier that night: “Beautiful are the feet of the one who brings good news.”

I think there are many like Lisa who have feared death, who never have been alongside someone as they were dying in the hope of Christ, the hope of Jesus’ resurrection, whose body with anointed feet was laid in a grave, only to walk out on those feet when the stone was rolled away. Lisa described this moment as “devastating and sweet.” She describes how we both grieve and yet hope because of this very good news.

This is a book for the believing person who is wondering, “is that all there is?” when they think of the gospel, particularly if they wonder about the relevance of the gospel to the brokenness they see around them. This is a book for new believers to help them understand the fullness of what they have believed. And it is a book that the person considering faith might also read, both because of its exposition of this “very good gospel” and for the honest yet winsome account Harper gives of her own growing understanding of that gospel.


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