Archive | Book Reviews

A Review of James Dolezal’s “All That Is in God”

I really wish I had not waited as long as I did to read James Dolezal’s 2017 book All That Is in God: Evangelical Theology and the Challenge of Classical Christian Theism (Reformation Heritage, 2017). As it is, I only picked it up a month or so ago, but I would have picked it up much sooner if I had realized what an important book this is. It’s only 137 pages, but it is without question one of the most significant books that I have ever read. I don’t agree with everything in this book. In fact, there are parts of it that I found quite frustrating. Nevertheless, the main thesis of this book is one that needs to seep down into every nook and cranny of evangelical theology. Continue Reading →

Is social justice unjust?

I want to post a brief note about Noah Rothman’s new book on social justice titled Unjust: Social Justice and the Unmaking of America (Regnery, 2019). I just finished it a couple days ago and found much that is helpful in it. Rothman outlines a brief history of social justice movements and argues that its current incarnation has collapsed into identity politics. In short, social justice is not about notions of individual liberty and justice but about righting historical wrongs committed against various identity groups.

Rothman is not denying that certain groups have experienced injustice. On the contrary, he argues that certain classes of people have in fact experienced historic oppression and that their plight demands justice. His contention, however, is that so-called “social justice” has devolved into recriminations between identitarian movements on both the right and the left. He criticizes both sides of this conflict as extreme and poisonous to our common culture.

Nevertheless, Rothman’s focus in this particular book is the identitarian movement of the left called social justice. Here is Rothman in his own words:

The American tradition of political idealism is imperiled by a growing obsession with the demographic categories of race, sex, ethnicity, and sexual orientation—the primary categories that are now supposed to constitute “identity.” As groups defined by these various categories have come to command the comprehensive allegiance of their members, identity alone has become a powerful political program. As it turns out, it is not a program that appeals to the better angels of our nature.

Identity has always been a part of our political culture, but lately the practitioners of identity politics have been less interested in continuity and legitimacy than in revenge. This retribution is antithetical to the conciliatory ideals by which injustices perpetrated in the name of identity were once reconciled. The authors of this vengeance reject the kind of blind, objective justice toward which Western civilization has striven since the Enlightenment. They argue, in fact, that blind justice is not justice at all. Objectivity is a utopian goal, a myth clung to by naïve children. We are all products of our experiences and the conditions into which we were born, whether we like it or not. Those traits set us on a course that is in many ways predestined.

The identity-obsessed left believes that Americans who are born into “privileged” demographic categories—male, white, and heterosexual, among others—will have an easier time navigating life than their underprivileged counterparts, among them women, ethnic minorities, and the LGBT. Those on the right believe the opposite is true: the historically marginalized have had the scales tipped in their direction. The so-called “privileged” majority not only has lost its privileges but is often stripped of its essential rights.

The paranoia which can ensue from this division is the venomous progeny of identity politics. Its practitioners call it social justice.

This idea of social justice has developed into a way of life. The study of identity long ago ceased to resemble an academic discipline. Its tenets are as inviolable as any religious dogma. [pages xii-xiii]

Rothman contends that social justice practitioners have left behind a liberal ideal of justice for the illiberal ideal of retributive and distributive justice. Retributive justice involves punitive social action against historically privileged groups while distributive justice requires redistribution of goods and capital to historically oppressed groups. This kind of justice foments division and hostility which in turn unravel the social fabric of the nation. In short, Rothman believes that the current incarnation of social justice is going to be the undoing of America unless its illiberal tendencies can be reversed.

I do not intend this to be a full review and have only given the briefest sketch of Rothman’s work. Nevertheless, Rothman has evinced a provocative thesis that I think deserves a wide hearing.

A Hope Not on Offer in the Gnostic Gospels

Yesterday, I finished Elaine Pagels’ moving memoir Why Religion? A Personal Story (Ecco, 2018). If Pagels’ name is unfamiliar to the general reader, it is not to scholars of the Bible and early Christianity. Pagels has been writing provocative books about early Christianity and its interface with Gnosticism since the 1970’s. Her 1979 book The Gnostic Gospels was a popular introduction to the Nag Hammadi library that became a publishing sensation. Her work in this book caught the attention of a popular readership and garnered numerous awards.

She has written many other books since then, so her scholarly work has been well-known for decades now. And yet, this latest book, Why Religion?, seems different. It is a deeply personal narrative of her life, not just as a scholar but as a wife and a mother. Her account reveals that her work as an author has been deeply impacted by her own personal search for meaning in the midst of suffering. And her suffering has indeed been profound. Continue Reading →

“Ready Player One” and Three Is the Magic Number

I just finished the book Ready Player One by Ernest Cline, also known as The Greatest Story Ever Told. What do I mean by that? I don’t think I’ve ever come across a more heavy-handed retelling of the gospel narrative in a novel. Nor have I had more fun with a novel than this one. It’s as if Cline aimed this book at people born in 1972 and weaned on 80’s pop-culture. The book is a nostalgia-filled Geek-fest for readers like me.


The story is set in the United States in a dystopian future in the year 2044. The main character, Wade Watts, is an awkward teenage gamer and computer hacker. Wade and every other person on the planet escape the daily gloom by immersing themselves in an online world called the OASIS (Ontologically Anthropocentric Sensory Immersive Simulation). Continue Reading →

Ryan Anderson on the virtues of motherhood and homemaking

I’ve been working toward a review of Ryan Anderson’s forthcoming book When Harry Became Sally: Responding to the Transgender Moment (Encounter Books, 2018). It really is a fantastic, must-read work. I will resist beginning the review here, but I do want to share a passage from it that extols the virtues of motherhood and homemaking. Anderson writes:

G. K. Chesterton praised the vocation of mother and homemaker as greater than paid employment in the modern marketplace, noting especially the broad range of responsibilities it involves. In her own domain, a home- maker is like the Queen, “deciding sales, banquets, labors and holidays”; she is like Whiteley, the great retailer, “providing toys, boots, sheets, cakes and books”; she is like Aristotle, “teaching morals, manners, theology, and hygiene.” Chesterton remarked:

I can understand how this might exhaust the mind, but I cannot imagine how it could narrow it. How can it be a large career to tell other people’s children about the Rule of Three, and a small career to tell one’s own children about the universe? How can it be broad to be the same thing to everyone, and narrow to be everything to someone? No. A woman’s function is laborious, but because it is gigantic, not because it is minute.

Today, Esolen echoes Chesterton, saying that our culture has gotten this backward. If a woman works full-time in the modern economy, specializing in one task—perhaps cooking, arranging flowers, or performing music—then society praises her. But if she “can do all these things and in fact does them for the people she loves and for those whom she welcomes into her home (and she is not afraid of guests, because her home is always just a whisk or two away from hospitality), we shake our heads and say that she has wasted her talents.” On the contrary, Esolen says, she has put her talents to use. Instead of “preferring the specialist who amputates and cauterizes and does one thing well, for herself primarily and sometimes even at the expense of the family,” we must renew our respect for “the woman of many talents and many tasks in the home.” Like Chesterton, we must acknowledge that the dignity of work does not depend on pay, and that the work done inside the home is just important as the work done outside of it, and perhaps more so.

The modern penchant for denigrating motherhood and homemaking is a morally retrograde farce. Bravo to Ryan Anderson (and Chesterton and Esolen) for seeing and declaring the good, the beautiful, and the true.

Kiss the Wave: Embracing God in Your Trials

Yesterday, I received a copy of Dave Furman’s new book Kiss the Wave: Embracing God in Your Trials. Dave is a husband, father of four, and a pastor at Redeemer Church of Dubai. I just received the book, so I obviously haven’t read it yet. But I wanted to share a little snippet from a letter that Dave wrote describing what the book is about. He writes:

One month into our ministry in the desert, everything fell apart. The nerve pain in my arms went from bad to extreme and the accompanying depression was unbearable. I was (and still am) unable to drive, shake hands, and lift more than a couple of pounds. I need help putting on my seatbelt and getting dressed. There are days when the darkness seems like it will not lift. Through this struggle, I’ve seen that the only answer to our pain is to embrace God in our trials.

There’s a quote often attributed to Charles Spurgeon that says, “l have learned to kiss the wave that throws me against the Rock of Ages.” In those words, Spurgeon is not giving us trite advice, pretending as if suffering is not difficult. He is instead telling us that God is doing more in our suffering than we can see with our eyes. Instead of flailing our arms in panic or running from him, by faith we need to see that the stormy waves are actually taking us to God. Kiss the Wave is a book for all of us because we all struggle at various times and we certainly know those who are hurting.

I am really grateful to have received this book and wanted to pass it along to you.

Beauty, Order, and Mystery: A Christian Vision of Human Sexuality

Todd Wilson and Gerald Hiestand have put together a stimulating collection of essays on sexuality titled Beauty, Order, and Mystery: A Christian Vision of Human Sexuality (IVP, 2017). Contributors represent a diverse range of views within evangelicalism and include Richard Mouw, Beth Felker Jones, Wesley Hill, and yours truly.

My chapter is titled “The Transgender Test” and explores the ways that transgenderism presents a unique challenge to Christian faithfulness and witness. I argue that it is a test of biblical authority, a test of biblical message, and a test of biblical relevance.

All of the contributors participated in the 2016 conference hosted by the Center for Pastors Theologians in Oak Park, Illinois. Here’s the publisher’s description:

Humans are sexual creatures. Our sexuality can be a beautiful and mysterious expression of what it means to be human. But it can also become distorted and sinful. Perhaps no issue is as urgent for the church today, or confronts it with as many questions, as human sexuality: What does it mean to fulfill God’s will through our sexuality? To what extent should our sexuality define who we are? How can we navigate cultural trends around sexuality while being faithful to Scripture? The Center for Pastor Theologians (CPT) seeks to assist pastors in the study and production of biblical and theological scholarship for the theological renewal of the church and the ecclesial renewal of theology. Based on the 2016 annual CPT conference, this volume brings together the reflections of church leaders and academic theologians who seek to answer the urgent questions concerning human sexuality. contributors engage with Scripture, draw on examples from church history, and delve into current issues in contemporary culture, including embodiment, marriage, homosexuality, pornography, transgenderism, and gender dysphoria. Beauty, Order, and Mystery tackles difficult questions with discernment in order to offer a theological vision of faithful human sexuality for the church.

The essays are not overly technical but are accessible to ordinary lay readers. If you’re interested, you can order the book here.

Book Review of “Single Gay Christian”

I just finished reading Gregory Coles’ moving memoir Single Gay Christian: A Personal Journey of Faith and Sexual Identity (IVP, 2017). In many ways, there is much to admire about this book. Coles is a great writer and has put together a real page-turner. This is not a boring book. Coles’ honesty and vulnerability come through in just about every page. Coles is telling his own story—warts and all—and he’s gut-wrenchingly honest about his emerging awareness of himself as a same-sex attracted man.

Coles’s story is a very human story, and just about anyone (same-sex attracted or not) can resonate with the humor and the pathos that he narrates. By the end of it, you feel like you know the man. And this is a man who embraces the Bible’s prohibitions on same-sex immorality. Because of that, he has dedicated himself to a life of celibacy out of faithfulness to Christ. As hard as it is, Coles has concluded that faithfulness to Jesus on this point is more important than pursuing a gay relationship.

So there is much that I resonate with in Coles’s story. In the end, however, I share the same concerns about the book that Rachel Gilson expressed in her review at TGC.

First, this book falls squarely within the celibate gay identity genre, in which the author rejects gay sexual behavior and gay marriage but embraces a gay identity. Coles argues that being gay is “central to my identity” (p. 37). He resists referring to himself simply as one who experiences same-sex attraction. Coles believes that describing himself as same-sex attracted might imply that the experience is merely a “phase” he is going through (p. 63). He maintains that being gay is something that defines him at the core of his being. His sexual attractions are not just how he is but who he is. Coles writes:

I began to realize that my sexual orientation was an inextricable part of the bigger story God was telling over my life. My interests, my passions, my abilities, my temperament, my calling—there was no way to sever those things completely from the gay desires and mannerisms and attitudes that had developed alongside them. For the first time in my life, I felt free to celebrate the beautiful mess I had become (p. 43).

Coles not only argues that homosexuality is core to his identity, he even suggests that it may be a part of God’s good design.

Is it too dangerous, too unorthodox, to believe that I am uniquely designed to reflect the glory of God? That my orientation, before the fall, was meant to be a gift in appreciating the beauty of my own sex as I celebrated the friendship of the opposite sex? That perhaps within God’s flawless original design there might have been eunuchs, people called to lives of holy singleness?

We in the church recoil from the word gay, from the very notion of same-sex orientation, because we know what it looks like only outside of Eden, where everything has gone wrong. But what if there’s goodness hiding within the ruins? What if the calling to gay Christian celibacy is more than just a failure of straightness? What if God dreamed it for me, wove it into the fabric of my being as he knit be together and sang life into me? (pp. 46-47)

Coles suggests that same-sex orientation may be a part of God’s original creation design and that homosexual orientation within Eden is an ideal that exceeds that which people experience outside of Eden.

I do not know how to reconcile this perspective with scripture or with the natural law. Same-sex orientation is not simply a “creational variance” (as Nicholas Wolterstorff has described it). Scripture teaches explicitly that homosexual desire and behavior are “against nature”—meaning against God’s original creation design (Rom. 1:26-27). Nor can I reconcile this perspective with what Coles says elsewhere about same-sex orientation being a “thorn in the flesh,” which suggests that same-sex orientation is not a part of God’s original design. Which is it? A thorn in the flesh or something God “dreamed” for people as a part of his original design?

The answer to this question is not clear in this book, and that omission has enormous pastoral implications in the lives of people who experience same-sex attraction. Should they embrace their attraction as a “gift” from God that is a part of his original design for them? Or should they recognize those attractions as a part of what has gone wrong in creation? Should they try to find something holy in those desires, or should they flee from them? I am concerned that readers will not find a clear answer in this book. And there can be soul-crushing consequences for answering those questions incorrectly.

Second, Coles says that the Bible’s teaching on homosexuality and same-sex marriage is not as clear as conservative Christians suggest. After studying the issue and really digging into it for himself, he concludes that the Bible does not support same-sex marriage or homosexual behavior. Nevertheless, because the Bible is less straightforward on the matter than he previously was led to believe, he ends up treating the issue as one that faithful Christians may agree to disagree about. He writes,

The Bible’s treatment of homosexuality was complicated. More complicated than the well-meaning conservative preachers and ex-gay ministers were ready to admit. But the fact that it was complicated didn’t make every interpretation equally valid. There was still a best way of reading the text, still a truth that deserved to be pursued.

And when I pursued it, I got the answer I feared, not the answer I wanted. More and more, I found myself believing the Bible’s call to me was a call to self-denial through celibacy (pp. 36-37).

Coles goes on to explain that even though he embraced a conservative stance on the issue, the Bible’s lack of clarity continued to affect his views.

I was still sympathetic to the revisionist argument that affirmed the possibility of same-sex marriage. Part of me still wanted to believe it, and I understood at the most visceral level why some sincere Christians might choose to adopt this view (p. 37).

Even though Coles disagrees with those living in homosexual relationships, he nevertheless identifies some who do as “sincere Christians.” Near the end of the book, he elaborates even further:

And yet if I’m honest, there are issues I consider more theologically straightforward than gay marriage that sincere Christians have disagreed on for centuries. Limited atonement? “Once saved always saved”? Infant baptism?… If we can’t share pews with people whose understanding of God differs from ours, we’ll spend our whole lives worshiping alone (pp. 108-109).

Coles says that he does not wish to be the judge on such matters and says that judging other people’s hearts is “none of my business” (p. 110). He adds that the issue falls under the warning of Romans 14:4: “Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To their own master, servants stand or fall” (p. 110).

Coles seems to equate differences about homosexual immorality with differences that Christians have about second order doctrines. But how can homosexual immorality be treated in this way when the Bible says that those who commit such deeds do not inherit the kingdom of God (1 Cor. 6:9-11)? In scripture, sexual immorality is not compatible with following Christ (Eph. 5:5-6). How then can “sincere Christians” engage in such activity and still be considered followers of Christ? Coles does not seriously engage this question. He simply says that “sincere Christians” may come to different conclusions.

So much of the evangelical conversation on these issues has been colonized by secular identity theories. Those theories are premised on an unbiblical anthropology which defines human identity as “what I feel myself to be” rather than “what God designed me to be.” If there is to be a recovery and renewal of Christian conscience on sexuality issues, secular identity theories must give way to God’s design as revealed in nature and scripture. Gay identity proposals, in my view, are not bringing us any closer to that renewal.

I really enjoyed getting to know Coles’s story. I can’t help but admire his continuing commitment to celibacy and traditional marriage. I want to cheer him on in that and say “amen.” Still, I am concerned that the celibate gay identity perspective he represents is not biblically faithful or pastorally helpful. And the issue is important enough to flag in a review like this one. Evangelicals need to think their way through to biblical clarity on sexuality and gender issues, but the celibate gay identity view is muddying the waters.

God and the Transgender Debate

Andrew Walker’s important new book has just released today. It is titled God and the Transgender Debate, and it is a must-read. That is in fact what I wrote in my endorsement for the publisher:

The post-Christian West says that we are what we think we are, not what our bodies reveal us to be and this is one of the chief challenges to Christianity today. That is why God and the Transgender Debate is so important. It is a countercultural, compassionate, must-read book.
Denny Burk, President, the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood

The transgender challenge is at the leading edge of Christianity’s interface with secular culture. If you want to understand this challenge, then you need to read this book. Highly recommended.

As sweet as apple pie and as pure as Christmas

Somehow I’ve gone my whole life until now without reading Wilson Rawls’s classic Where the Red Fern Grows. My wife recently began reading it to our children, and that is what motivated me to get into it myself. Tonight I ended up finishing it well before they did, and I have to say that I really loved it. I’m sure I would have enjoyed this book as a boy. I certainly relished it as a man (although I think I have something in my eye).

In her introduction to the story, Clare Vanderpool describes the book this way:

Wilson Rawls’s beloved tale taps into the wellspring that runs deep in all of us—the desire for adventure, discovery, room to wander, and the “real love” that exists between a boy and his dogs…

Billy Colman is the kid we all wish we still were: aspiring, hopeful, steadfast. The kind who braves frigid temperatures on a nighttime hunt in the remote hills and river bottoms of Cherokee country, holds his own in a skirmish with the town kids, and takes on the challenge of treeing the elusive “ghost coon” in an all-night vigil. He is also that special kind of kid who is brought to tears by feeling that he has let his dogs down. Billy’s “dog-wanting disease” takes him on a journey of courage and discovery that beckons to the kid, the dreamer, and the dog-lover in all of us.

And what wonderful dogs they are. From the first time we lay eyes on the two floppy-eared pups at the train station in Tahlequah, we know these dogs. Little Ann is smart, playful, and sweet—”she could make friends with a tomcat.” And Old Dan—impulsive, friendly, and loyal—”would not hunt with another hound, other than Little Ann.”

This book is not for cynics. It’s as sweet as apple pie and as pure as Christmas. It is a book for someone who likes his stories good and true—which means your kids will love it. I am eager to share it with mine. Highly recommended.

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