Theology Mini-Reviews

It’s time to catch up a little bit on some theological books that have been hanging out on my mental “I really need to review this” list. To that end, here are five mini-reviews (in the order I read them):

Title: Gay Girl, Good God:
The Story of Who I Was, and Who God Has Always Been
Author: Jackie Hill Perry
Genre: Autobiography / Theology (sexuality)
Pages: 208
Rating: 4.5 of 5

This is probably the most controversial title on this list because it assumes the premise that Scripture passages like 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 should be taken seriously when they say that a homosexual lifestyle is incompatible with biblical morality. This is Jackie Hill Perry’s account of her spiritual experience of “being made new.” She honestly recounts her hurts, struggles, and triumphs as God works in her life, drawing her to himself and helping her deal with issues related to pride, anger, sexuality, etc. Interwoven with her personal story are wise observations about showing love and acceptance, helping new believers, dealing with sin in your life, and much more. My only (minor) complaint was that some threads of her personal story felt like they were left dangling (in an “I forgot to round this off” way rather than a “this is still an ongoing part of my life” way).

How Long, O Lord?: Reflections on Suffering and Evil by [Carson, D. A.]Title: How Long, O Lord?:
Reflections on Suffering and Evil
Author: D. A. Carson
Genre: Theology (Theodicy)
Pages: 233 (plus indices etc.)
Rating: 5 of 5

I think that the most difficult challenge to Christian theism is the problem(s) of evil: basically, “If God is omniscient and omnibenevolent, why is there so much evil and suffering in the world?” This isn’t the most rigorous treatment of the topic that I have read (that would be The Many Faces of Evil by John S. Feinberg), but it is certainly the most readable and useful. This isn’t intended as counseling tool for the person in crisis, but as an aid to thinking through and building a basic biblical understanding of evil, suffering, and related issues beforehand for when life does bring grief and pain. I highly recommend this book!

Title: Does God Desire All to Be Saved?
Author: John Piper
Genre: Theology (Predestination)
Pages: 56
Rating: 4 of 5

Another difficult issue in Christian theology is the interplay between divine sovereignty and human responsibility. One sub-category to that is the question that goes something like “Some passages say God desires all to be saved, but others make it clear that not everyone is…so if God is sovereign meaning that all things happen according to his will what’s going on here?” If you’re curious about the topic, this little booklet is well worth reading for the Reformed perspective on the issue. It isn’t as rigorously argued as it could be in a full-length book, but it’s a basic starting point.

Title: Rescuing the Gospel from the Cowboys:
A Native American Expression of the Jesus Way
Author: Richard Twiss
Genre: Theology (Syncretism, Culture) / Anthropology / History
Pages: 261
Rating: 2 of 5

The history of American treatment of native Americans is shameful, and that often includes the history of missionary work. Many (most?) missionaries identified the Gospel of Jesus Christ so thoroughly with American/Western culture that they deemed virtually all elements of native American culture evil simply by virtue of not being Western (e.g. drums as primary instrumentation). Richard Twiss sought to find ways for native Americans to be followers of Jesus Christ in their culture. I love the premise of the book, but it spoke in such generalities (and with so much angry defensiveness and so many academic buzzwords) that I did not find it very helpful.

Title: Buried Dreams, Planted Hope:
Finding Hope in Life’s Darkest Moments
Authors: Katie Neufeld & Kevin Neufeld
Genre: Autobiography / Theology (Grief, Hope)
Pages: 293
Rating: 3.5 of 5

This is a brutally honest account of loss, grief, and hope. Katie Neufeld’s fiance was killed in a car accident shortly before their wedding. She wrote this book with her father as a record of living with this tragedy and in the hope of helping others who find themselves or loved ones facing similar heartbreaking loss. I appreciate the vulnerable honesty of this book, but to be honest, it could have used an editor. I’m pretty sure it’s self-pub and it shows in the odd formatting/organization and repetitiveness.

“Come let us reason together…”

Title: Understanding Transgender Identities: Four Views
Authors: Owen Strachan, Mark A. Yarhouse, Julia Sandusky, Megan K. DeFranza, Justin Sabia-Tanis
Genre: Theology/philosophy/science
Pages: 272
Rating: 4 of 5
Future Release Date: 11/5/19 (Thank you to the authors, editors, and publisher for a free eARC via NetGalley. This in no way influences the content of the review)

I appreciate multi-view Christian theology books like this one. They provide insight into controversial topics in a way that largely prevents straw man argumentation or ad hominem. Each author (or team of authors) gives their view on the topic at hand, and each of the others authors is allowed to write a short rebuttal/response. By the end you have a good idea of major points of agreement and disagreement across the Christian spectrum.

The four views in this book aren’t given “official” names, but they range from Strachan’s conservative Christian view that transition to a gender different from biological sex is immoral to the view of Sabia-Tanis a trans man who celebrates transgender identities as an expression of God’s creativity and diversity. The two mediating positions are really more like four mediating positions as Yarhouse & DeFranza’s chapter offers three different approaches to the issue (and doesn’t really take a stand on any of them).

Strachan’s chapter deals most extensively with potentially relevant biblical passages (but seems very short on nuance or rubber-meets-the-road application), while the others spend more of their page count with scientific & psychiatric theories, pragmatic descriptions of what seems to best help a gender-dysphoric person’s well-being, and/or appeals to emotion. DeFranza and Sabia-Tanis rest their Bible-based arguments almost entirely on passages dealing with eunuchs while brushing aside other passages as irrelevant and/or misinterpreted.

If you are a Christian, you may or may not find a view here that exactly matches up with your own, but you will at least gain an understanding of the specific issues, questions, and lines of reasoning involved. This is a solid multi-view theology book.

Shepherds Who Feed Only Themselves

Title: God, Greed, and the (Prosperity) Gospel:
How Truth Overwhelms a Life Built on Lies
Author: Costi Hinn
Genre: Theology / Autobiography
Pages: 224
Rating: 5 of 5

Many of the world’s most popular Christian preachers proclaim a message of unending, guaranteed health, wealth, and prosperity for those who exercise the right kind of faith. Jesus must have misspoken when he told his followers they would experience mistreatment, conflict, troubles, and weakness/sickness, because these men and women can tell you how to have it all right now (in Jesus’ name, of course). You know it’s true because just look at how rich they are! If it doesn’t work for you, you obviously don’t have enough faith, and maybe throwing some money their way would be a demonstration of your faith that would really catch God’s attention.

In this book, Costi Hinn (nephew of faith healer Benny Hinn) confronts this twisted, self-serving teaching. For the first 60% of the book he recounts his own story of growing up in luxury (funded by the offerings of people desperate for healing or prosperity), slowly coming to the realization of the abusive, deceptive nature of this false gospel, and rejecting it. The remainder of the book examines the nature, history, and impact of the prosperity gospel. He emphasizes its distortion of Scripture and the true Gospel (e.g. Romans 5:8-10, Romans 3:23-25, Ephesians 2:4-10). Given his family ties, the teachings and actions he refers to most directly are Benny Hinn’s, but he touches on beliefs shared by Joel Osteen, Oral Roberts, Joyce Meyer, the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God (a church I was acquainted with where I grew up in Brazil), and many others.

Costi’s overall tone is as gracious as you can possibly be while warning that someone else’s belief system is dangerous and completely in the wrong. The abuse of Scripture and exploitation of people carried out by the prosperity gospel makes my blood boil, so I am impressed with his self-control and ability to “speak the truth in love.” The most scathing criticism in the book comes when he quotes from Scripture. These are the words of Jude, the half-brother of Jesus, writing about exploitive teachers:

These people are blemishes at your love feasts, eating with you without the slightest qualm—shepherds who feed only themselves. They are clouds without rain, blown along by the wind; autumn trees, without fruit and uprooted—twice dead. They are wild waves of the sea,foaming up their shame; wandering stars, for whom blackest darkness has been reserved forever. – Jude 12-13 (NIV)

Please, don’t be led astray by these people or write off Jesus Christ because of wolves in sheep’s clothing who exploit his name for personal gain. I highly recommend this book as a very readable warning against a pervasive false teaching and a record of God’s grace to a young man who was caught up in it. (And if you want a shorter, blunter explanation of the problems with the prosperity gospel and examples of those who teach it check out Fal$e Teacher$ by hip-hop/rap artist Shai Linne).

Historical Hamartiology

Against God and Nature: The Doctrine of Sin (Foundations of Evangelical Theology) by [McCall, Thomas H.]Title: Against God and Nature:
The Doctrine of Sin
Author: Thomas H. McCall
Genre: Theology (Hamartiology)
Pages: 448
Rating: 3 of 5
Future Release Date: 6/25/19 (Thank you to the author & publisher for a free eARC through NetGalley. This does not affect the content of the review)

Last year I reviewed another book from this Foundations of Evangelical Theology series: Light in a Dark Place: The Doctrine of Scripture. That book was by John S. Feinberg, the general editor of the series, and I found it helpful and academically rigorous. I was a bit less impressed with this offering by Thomas H. McCall.

McCall deals with the doctrine of sin; not a pleasant topic, but crucial to a proper understanding of the Christian faith. He approaches the topic with an Arminian point of view, which sets him apart from many of the other authors in the series as they tend to be more Reformed. Though I lean in a more Reformed direction myself, that wasn’t what irked me about this book (though he may have spent more of his page count than was strictly necessary on “Arminian vs. Reformed” related concerns).

The book covers pretty much all the facets of the doctrine that you would expect, but there was relatively little direct exegetical interaction with Scripture compared to other broadly Evangelical systematic theology books I have read. McCall spends much of his page count surveying what different councils and theologians have said about the topic down through history. While I appreciate the use of historical theology (something Evangelical theologians aren’t always very good at), I do not appreciate how it dominates the book. After the second chapter which surveys what the entire Bible says about sin, there is little directly digging into the grammar, examining possible cross-references, or other biblical theology concerns. Instead we get to hear what the Council of Carthage, Augustine, John of Damascus, Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin, Karl Barth, etc. thought about the matter.

This focus on historical theology means that most of the time the book is dealing with Scripture at (at least) one remove, occasionally going into Scripturally iffy territory (e.g. some death existing before the fall). I did find some of the discussions profitable (e.g. the section on original sin helpfully explored many possible understandings of the difficult concept), but overall I was disappointed by the relative scarcity of detailed exegesis or direct appeal to Scripture.

Book Haul from TGC19

This year I was doing fairly well at reading books that I already owned and not buying too many new books (though we won’t speak of $3/bag day at the library book sale), and I had just gotten my TBR under 60 books. Then I spent the last three days at the The Gospel Coalition conference. It’s an excellent conference that I would highly recommend if you want solid biblical challenges to live your faith and not just frothy “you can do it!” prosperity gospel.

But bibliophiles beware: all the best Christian publishing houses are there with 2,500+ heavily discounted books, and we’re not talking “bonnet ripper” barely historical romance tripe (I don’t think there was any Christian fiction outside of the children’s tables). I had more or less controlled myself and bought only 7 or 8…and then I got 4 or 5 freebies…and then a friend/enabler told me to go pick out another $75 worth on him…and, long story short, I ended up with 20 new books.

Ten on social issues / applied theology:

Social

…and 10 that are more straight up systematic theology, philosophy, or biblical studies:

Systematic

Have you read any of these? Where would you start?

Neo-Orthodoxy

Title: The Essential Karl Barth:
A Reader and Commentary
Author: Karl Barth & Keith L. Johnson
Genre: Neo-Orthodox Theology
Pages: 384
Rating: 4 of 5 (with serious reservations)
Future Release Date: 4/2/19 (Thank you to the author and publisher for a free eARC via NetGalley. This in no way affects the content of the review)

I’m not quite sure how to rate this book. As a detailed introduction to Karl Barth’s theology, it is superb. However, I find parts of Karl Barth’s theology itself problematic (e.g. the Bible becomes a means of God personally revealing himself to us but is not itself revelation, the vague answers on the origin/nature of evil and possibility of universalism, taking as a starting point God as “wholly other” who cannot be known through any “creaturely” means, etc.). I have neither the desire nor skill to engage in a detailed critique of Barth’s theology, but suffice it to say that an overall positive rating on this book is by no means an endorsement of his theology.

That said, I think that you can learn more about someone’s views on life, the universe, and everything by reading their writings rather than by reading someone else’s criticism of their writings. The format of this book allows you to dip into significant excerpts from Barth’s massive body of writings and see how his theology grew and changed over time (as well as how it led him to interact with German politics up to and during World War II). Copious endnotes provide a running commentary on the text. I would strongly recommend the electronic version of this over the print version as it is much more convenient for toggling back and forth between text and explanatory notes.

In summary: if you are interested in Karl Barth and his “Neo-Orthodox” theology this works beautifully as an introduction. I would also recommend reading critical responses to his theology, but start with the man himself if you want to know what he actually believed and taught.

Philosophy Wrapped in Story

Resurrection audiobook cover artTitle: Resurrection
Author: Leo Tolstoy
Translator: Louise Maude
Genre: Classic Russian Fiction / Philosophy / Theology
Pages: 398
Rating: 4 of 5

I seldom read modern Christian fiction. With a few exceptions, it tends to be preachy, poorly-researched schlock full of morbid introspection and cheesy romance. I’m not sure where things went wrong, because this Russian classic is most certainly Christian, features quite a bit of morbid introspection, and still managed to wow me. This is one of those books where plot comes in a distant second to the author’s desire to explore and expound philosophical and theological points, but the characters were still sympathetic (or loathsome), and I genuinely wanted to find out what happened to them.

Tolstoy’s tale follows the spiritual journey of a privileged man who realizes that his actions, past and present, have contributed to the downfall of a poor woman: sending her into a down-spiral leading into prostitution and eventual wrongful conviction for murder. We see his inner spiritual struggle over how to rectify the situation as well as the outward struggle of living in a self-centered society that cares nothing for the poor and “criminal class.” To me, Tolstoy’s approach places so much emphasis on doing good that faith (an indispensable part of Christianity) is nearly excluded. However there was much food for thought throughout the book whether I agreed with him or not.

I listened to this as an audiobook read by Simon Vance. His narration was excellent, but I think that I might have preferred reading this myself for the sake of being able to re-read, make notes, etc. when it came to many of the philosophical points.

Overall, even though this had a lot of what I dislike in modern Christian fiction, it worked in the hands of a master like Tolstoy, and I greatly appreciated this book. Also, I am using this for my Classic in Translation category over at the Back to the Classics Challenge.

The Babylon Bee’s Best

Title: How to Be a Perfect Christian:
Your Comprehensive Guide to Flawless Spiritual Living
Author: The Babylon Bee (Adam Ford & Kyle Mann)
Genre: Christian Satire
Pages: 208
Rating: 5 of 5
(Thank you to the authors and publisher for a free review copy. This in no way affects the content of my review)

Make way for some of the best religious satire since the prophet Elijah advised the prophets of Baal that they needed to yell louder because their god might be asleep or in the loo (1 Kings 18:27). The Babylon Bee is a hilarious satire site on the order of The Onion but with an Evangelical Christian slant.

This, The Bee’s first book, absolutely skewers legalistic, self-centered, preference-driven, argumentative, politics-obsessed Christianity. Who needs all that grace and fruit of the Spirit stuff when a little virtue signalling and putting others in their place will have everyone around you noticing how super spiritual you are?

Like any well-written satire, How to Be a Perfect Christian nicely blends funny, sad, and convicting. Depending on your taste, it might feel like it goes on a little too long or occasionally strays into “too mean” territory. However, I appreciate how it managed to hit on most of the common pitfalls to which Evangelical Christians are prone and cleverly wrapped up with a heartwarming summary of the grace and love that is at the heart of a true relationship with God. I highly recommend this book and expect it to make my top 10 list at the end of the year.

Catch-up with Mini Reviews

I’m starting to fall behind on reviews, so it’s time for a bunch of mini-reviews! No unifying theme…this is just the order in which I read them.

Title: Enforcer:
The Shira Calpurnia Omnibus
Author: Matthew Farrer
Genre: Military Sci-fi (Warhammer 40,000 universe)
Pages: 859
Rating: 3 of 5

Space marines bore me, so if I’m going to read a Warhammer 40K book, I usually go for the stories featuring other kinds of characters. This trilogy omnibus features Shira Calpurnia, an “adeptus arbites” – basically a combination of detective, SWAT, and judge. For me, the main interest in these stories came from their exploration of the inner workings and politics of groups like rogue traders, the ecclesiarchy, and the arbites themselves. At times Shira Calpurnia all but disappears from the stories as the scheming going on around her is far more interesting than anything she does in response to it. I never expect Warhammer 40,000 books to be anything more than pulp-y escapist sci-fi, and by that standard this was a decent read.

The Ministry of Fear by [Greene, Graham]Title: The Ministry of Fear
Author: Graham Greene
Genre: Thriller / Espionage
Pages: 226
Rating: 3.5 of  5

In this classic thriller Graham Greene weaves an improbable but entertaining spy yarn. He mixes in all the ingredients of an over the top “ordinary man accidentally caught up in a vast conspiracy” story and a “man with a guilty conscience due to past transgressions” story, all set during the London blitz…and somehow it works. It does have a good dose of Graham’s usual bleak cynicism as well, but it is well worth reading if you like that kind of espionage tale.

Title: A Biblical Answer for Racial Unity
Authors: H. B. Charles Jr., Danny Akin, Juan Sanchez, Richard Caldwell, Jim Hamilton, Owen Strachan, Carl Hargrove, Christian George
Genre: Theology/Philosophy, Race Relations
Pages: 122
Rating: 3 of 5

This is essentially a lightly edited version of nine sermons/speeches given at a conference on racial unity. If you want a very basic survey of some general biblical principles that apply to racial unity, this is worth your time. However, if you are looking for actual “where the rubber meets the road” applications, you won’t find many here other than the most basic and generalized.

1000 Years of Annoying the French by [Clarke, Stephen]Title: 1,000 Years of Annoying the French
Author: Stephen Clarke
Genre: Anglo-French History / Humor
Pages: 506
Rating: 4 of 5

In this humorously biased history, Stephen Clarke chronicles the long history of mutual antagonism between France and England (starting with the Norman Conquest). Along the way he delights in pointing out French self-sabotage and does his best to suck the grandeur out of any French accomplishments. The book is a lot of fun to read and contains a lot of great trivia…just don’t use it as a main source for serious research.

Title: Dear Committee Members
Author: Julie Schumacher
Genre: Humor/Satire
Pages: 192
Rating: 4.5 of 5

Last year Julie Schumacher’s The Shakespeare Requirement came in 6th on my Top 10 list.  That was the sequel to this book, which was just as enjoyable. As I said with The Shakespeare Requirement: if you’ve ever been involved in academia and/or some similar buzz-wordy bureaucratic job, you should really read this book. This one is in the format of dozens of letters of recommendation written by a harassed English professor in a struggling university. Cleverly mixed in with the recommendations is the story of his rather pathetic personal and professional life and ongoing battle with the all-powerful economics department.

Title: Superheroes Can’t Save You:
Epic Examples of Historic Heresies
Author: Todd Miles
Genre: Theology (Christology)
Pages: 208
Rating: 4.5 of 5

Theology professor and self-professed comic book aficionado Todd Miles uses seven different superheroes to illustrate various Christological heresies (wrong beliefs about Jesus Christ according to classic Christian theology). For example, Ant-Man illustrates modalism in which rather than the Trinity being three separate co-equal co-eternal persons, it is simply one person who presents himself in three modes. For each heresy Miles gives a brief survey of its history, a biblical explanation of why it is unscriptural, and a warning as to why (even though this makes for a cool superhero) a Jesus with this nature would be insufficient to provide eternal salvation. This is fairly basic theology, but it’s a fun way to be exposed to the classic Christian understanding of who Jesus is.

Title: The Red Record
Author: Ida B. Wells
Genre: History of Lynching
Pages: 102
Rating: 4.5 of 5

This book/pamphlet was an emotionally difficult read but it is historically important. Ida B. Wells records (sometimes in heartrending detail) many instances of racially motivated lynchings in the late 1800’s and pleads for people to take notice and speak out against it. For me it was a painful reminder that far too many white Christians have been (and sometimes still are) shamefully complicit in racial injustice either actively or through passively standing by and doing nothing while mumbling some variation of “they brought it on themselves.” The writing itself is a little repetitive and spends maybe a bit too much time on the feud between Ida Wells and the head of the Christian Women’s Temperance Union, but that does not detract from its importance.

God & Guns

Title: Beating Guns:
Hope for People Who are Weary of Violence
Authors: Shane Claiborne & Michael Martin
Genre: Theology/Philosophy/Politics
Pages: 288
Rating: 3 of 5
Future Release Date: March 5, 2019 (Thank you to the authors and publisher for a free eARC via NetGalley. This in no way affects the content of the review)

I come from a denominational background (American Evangelical/Baptist) where it is not uncommon for people to treat the broadest possible interpretation of the Second Amendment (right to bear arms) with practically the same devotion as any of the basic tenets of the faith. Attempts to discuss gun violence are met with, “It’s not a gun problem. It’s a heart problem” or some similar slogan. Over my last eight years as a pastor I have grown increasingly troubled by the gun culture I see among Evangelicals and the not-so-Christlike attitudes that it seems to foster in many people. I picked up this book to try to get another perspective on the issue.

These authors contend that the US has both a heart problem and a gun problem. The book is loaded with history and disturbing statistics on gun sales, ownership, lobbying, laws, crime, self-defense, and suicide in the US (especially as compared to other industrialized nations). Furthermore, they point out Scripture passages where the prophets speak of a future without weapons or warfare (the title Beating Guns is a play on prophetic verses about “beating swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks” – Isaiah 2:4) and where Jesus speaks of non-violence and loving one’s enemies (e.g. the Sermon on the Mount – Matthew 5-7). While leaving some room for individual conscience as to what “commonsense gun laws” and responsible gun ownership might look like, they rightly challenge Christians to seriously reflect on how we as followers of Jesus Christ should relate to guns as far as ownership, admiration, advocacy, voting, etc.

Unfortunately, there is some serious “cherry picking” going on in their use of Scripture. They completely ignore passages that are in tension with their completely pacifist approach…passages that, if we take the Bible seriously, must be taken into account. For example:

  • Most of the prophets who describe the coming world peace talk about it being preceded by violent judgment from God/Jesus rather than a utopia brought about purely by social reform (e.g. Revelation 19)
  • Jesus’ rebuke of Peter for attacking a member of the party who came to arrest Jesus is preceded by a difficult, variously-interpreted passage in which Jesus talks about his disciples arming themselves (Luke 22:36-38)
  • The government is said to be God’s instrument for restraining evil, including by use of the sword (Romans 13:1-5)

This is not to say that the authors are entirely wrong in their concerns, but their approach to the Scripture is selective and incomplete. This makes me wonder if some of the history and statistics have been similarly oversimplified or misrepresented.

Another minor quibble that I have with the book is that the some of the information gets repeated over and over with very little variation in wording. I did read an eARC so maybe an editor will remove some of the redundancy and tighten things up before publication.

Overall, I appreciated the roundup of information and the challenge to think biblically (not just pragmatically) about the issue, but I do feel that there was some serious oversimplification going on here.