By / Apr 13

He sat against the wall, looking at his phone, seeming to pay little to no attention to our discussion leader. His wife sat next to him with her arm looped through his, occasionally patting it lovingly. She was a regular attender to our class, but this was the first time I remembered seeing him. 

As our Bible study continued, the topic of mental illness came up in our discussion. I mentioned the book I was reading, The Body Keeps the Score, and explained how it was opening my eyes to the effects of trauma on an individuals’ health, behavior and relationships, and specifically, the effects of PTSD. I explained how it was changing the way I viewed many interactions and experiences, as well as the interpersonal dynamics of ministry, including small groups. 

He raised his head and said, “I have PTSD. It is hard for me to sit in this room. We’re too close. I have friends who would have never come in. And if I had thought that I would have been expected to shake hands or hug people in the worship service, I would have never come either. A lot of churches don’t think about me. I hope more people in the church read books like you’re reading.”

My mouth fell open, and my eyes filled with tears.

An exercise in compassion

Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, an expert on trauma, has spent decades working with survivors, beginning during the time when Vietnam veterans were returning home. In his book, he walks us through his education, experiences, and research to explain how trauma literally reshapes both body and brain. 

Trauma is all around us. For example, van der Kolk points out that one in five Americans has been sexually abused, one in four grew up with alcoholics, and one in three couples have experienced physical violence. These are the shocking statistics of acute trauma experienced by so many. Van der Kolk’s research has also shown that chronic emotional abuse and neglect can also be devastating to individuals.

Reading this book and the patients’ accounts it features, although painful, ushered me into imagining experiences far from my own. Compassion requires imagination. After reading this book, I found myself pondering the stories and experiences of the people within my church. It was a profound emotional experience to consider how trauma has affected those I am called to disciple, encourage, and love. I was moved to tears when considering the effects of trauma on those I know, as well as those I’ve yet to find out about. 

Hope and dignity 

This book wasn’t written from a biblical perspective or to a ministerial audience, yet I was struck by the echoes of biblical themes it contained. The cohesion between van der Kolk’s scientific findings and the truths of Scripture was fascinating. One of the fundamental truths that he presents in the book is that, “Our capacity to destroy one another is matched by our capacity to heal one another.” This truth echoes the power of the tongue as described in Proverbs, Ephesians, and James. It was a reminder of how powerfully we can influence those around us, whether positively or negatively, with our words. His findings also highlighted that simple acts of friendship, kindness, community, and encouragement are critically important in people’s lives.

While dealing with both the horrific past experiences and current realities of his patients, the author maintained hope and an uncompromising ethic of human dignity. Van der Kolk’s compassion and patience with those he helps and his work are inspiring. He attributed his mindset to his “great teacher,” Elvin Semrad. He described a formative experience with Semrad during his education. “I remember asking him once: ‘What would you call this patient—schizophrenic or schizoaffective?’ He paused and stroked his chin, apparently in deep thought. ‘I think I’d call him Michael McIntyre,’ he replied.” This reflects a biblical ethic of seeing and treating human beings according to their intrinsic, God-given worth, no matter their current mental and physical condition.

New practices

The greater awareness of trauma I gained through reading this book has shaped my ministry in the local church forever. I have changed how I situate myself and engage in group settings. I have a new focus on considering social conditions to make people feel safe, as well as a cautious awareness related to physical touch. I have lowered my expectations of participation in discussions, recognizing how difficult it is for some people to contribute. I also now believe understanding the deep physical and psychological effects of trauma is critical to helping others finding healing and freedom from shame. I have a desire to be more patient with others, as well as with myself.

Personally, van der Kolk’s research gave me a sense of permission to acknowledge how the experiences of my life, although not acute acts of trauma, do affect me, even in my physical body. My husband and I have ministered to people during the most difficult days of their lives as a part of local church ministry. The Body Keeps the Score helped me to articulate those experiences, understand the reality of the impact they had on me, and prioritize my own healing. This book was an encouragement for me to care for my body and my mind in more holistic ways. I am now convinced of the importance of physical activities such as exercise, breathing, and walking for my mental health. I see these as gifts from God, given to strengthen and equip me for ministry. 

The Body Keeps the Score influenced many areas of my life. It opened the door for conversation that day with a new friend in a God-orchestrated way that I will never forget. It gave me a vocabulary and awareness of trauma that has allowed me to discuss difficult things with friends and family in a new way. I pray that many Christians will read this book. I recommend it to everyone I know, but especially those who seek to disciple and minister to others. To love our neighbors well, we must have this holistic understanding of the way God made us, body and soul, and the way our experiences in this life shape us. 

By / Apr 2

In this episode, Josh, Lindsay, and Brent discuss declining church membership, the Suez Canal, Pfizer’s vaccine for children, the fourth wave of coronavirus, abortion legislature in Kentucky, Kanakuk Kamps, and Opening Day. Lindsay gives a rundown of this week’s ERLC content including Jason Thacker with “Why reading books you disagree with helps you grow,” Emily Richards with “Why building connection and trust is vital for vulnerable children: The gospel in Show Hope’s Pre+Post Adoption Support,” and Adrian Warnock with “10 things you should know about the Resurrection.” Also in this episode, the hosts are joined by Casey Hough for a conversation about life and ministry. 

About Casey

Casey serves as the Lead Pastor of Copperfield Church in Houston, Texas. Casey actively writes for various evangelical outlets, serving primarily as an Associate Research Fellow and Religious Liberty Channel Editor for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. He is a fellow in the St. Peter Fellowship of the Center for Pastor Theologians. In addition to his role at Copperfield, Casey serves as an Assistant Professor of Biblical Interpretation at Luther Rice College and Seminary. In the past, Casey has taught Old Testament, New Testament, Comparative Religions, and Philosophy at a regional junior college in Arkansas. Casey and his wife, Hannah, have three sons and two daughters. You can connect with him on Twitter: @caseybhough or his website. You can subscribe to his newsletter here

ERLC Content

Culture

  1. Church members are minority in U.S. for first time, Gallup says
  2. With the Suez Canal Unblocked, the World’s Commerce Resumes Its Course
  3. Pfizer says its COVID-19 vaccine is 100% effective in children ages 12-15
  4. The fourth wave is here
  5. Legislature passes constitutional amendment declaring no right to abortion in KY
  6. Kanakuk Kamps Abuse Reexamined In New Report
  7. America’s pastime returns

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By / Apr 2

When I picked up Dan Darling’s book, The Characters of Easter, I expected a mere recounting of the various villains, heroes, cowards, and crooks that surrounded Jesus during the week leading up to the crucifixion. We read routinely about these characters in the Gospel accounts every year around Easter, but as Darling wants readers to experience through the book, the Passion and Resurrection of Christ “has never been more relevant than it is this ‘plague year’” (10). Why? Because Jesus has put Death to death through his death and resurrection. 

Darling’s book seeks to peek into the lives of the young and unlikely disciples, corrupt rulers, brave women, and criminals who witnessed firsthand the events of the cosmic drama unfolding in front of them. By looking at the setting in which Jesus lived and died, Darling reminds us of God’s great love displayed in his long and certain plan of salvation and rescue. 

Looking at Jesus through another’s eyes

Peter, John, Judas, Barabbas, Pilate, Thomas; The Pharisees, Scribes, and Sadducees; the women at the tomb, Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea, and the Roman Executioners all have a chapter devoted to them. Darling wants the reader to put themselves in the sandals of each one of these characters or groups of characters to look afresh at the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus and see our lives in theirs. How? By looking at each character, Darling stresses how they all had to encounter Jesus and how each of their responses can teach us something about following him. Each one had to decide how they would respond to the mercy and grace of Jesus toward them. 

Peter, though he denied Christ and stumbled in his faithfulness in his worst moments, was received by Christ and sent on mission for him. Peter shows that when burdened by our own sin, we should look to Christ who bore that sin on the cross and rose again to give us new life. John, a scornful “son of Thunder” toward those he opposed, was eventually called the “disciple of love.” Maybe we need our heart so transformed by the love of Christ that we bear a new description. Thomas, who doubted but was zealous at times for Christ, should move those who struggle with doubt to look again at Jesus’ nail-scarred hands and proclaim, “My Lord and my God.” 

The women who witnessed the resurrection not only witnessed the horror and agony of the crucifixion but were the first witnesses of the beauty and glory of Jesus’ resurrection. Like those women, we can experience the joy of the resurrection, knowing that reconciliation with God is now accomplished, and God is making all things new. And like these women, Christians are called to go tell the world about this wonderful news.

Darling points out how even the negative examples from Judas and Pilate and the Roman executioners can be beneficial for people to contemplate. Judas knew the language of the faith and had been close to Jesus, but became disillusioned because Jesus would not conform to Judas’ plans for him. Darling reminds the reader, “We are all like Judas in that we have also betrayed Jesus, time and time again. We’ve sold him for lesser idols. But we don’t have to suffer Judas’s fate. If we confess our sins, He’s faithful and just to forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9)” (82). 

Pilate shows that truth is available in the person of Jesus Christ, the one who keeps pursuing those who try to avoid him. Joseph and Nicodemus, those covert disciples, display there is no neutrality when it comes to Jesus. One who encounters Jesus and wants to follow him is called to risk it all and proclaim allegiance to him as the risen King. Barabbas gloriously illustrates that Jesus dies in the place of guilty sinners, though Jesus was without sin. He is our substitute, the Lamb who was slain. 

Conclusion

Darling’s book compacts the density of the last week of Jesus’ days before and after his resurrection into a short, powerful book. The book is devotional in nature, ending each chapter with study questions and suggestions for songs and hymns to accompany reflection on the chapter.  Both pastor-theologians and lay church members alike will be edified by dwelling on what Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection means for them personally and also for the entire cosmos. 

Jesus inaugurated a victorious kingdom that will never end and will consummate that kingdom one day. Though we do not live in the first century, Darling pushes the reader to ask what he or she will do with the King of this kingdom. The gospel drips from the pages. Darling reminds us that King Jesus will graciously receive all those who come to him in repentance and faith. This is the most important reality to ponder this Easter, and Darling’s book helps us do that. 

By / Mar 29

Amidst the constant distractions and shallowness on social media, reading a book can serve as a reprieve from the onslaught of information and as a way to challenge yourself to go deeper than 280 characters. Social media draws us in because it leads us to think we are staying connected with others, keeping up with what is going on around the world, and often takes less concentration than picking up a book. But these tools are constantly discipling us to seek expediency over the long process of learning and variety over sustained concentration. And with each click, scroll, or flick of the thumb, we are usually only being exposed to ideas that fit our preconceived beliefs about the world.

However, picking up a book that you know you will disagree with can help you understand another’s perspective and clarify why you hold to another position. This doesn’t mean that you run to just any book, but as you grow more comfortable with ideas, you can expose yourself to contrary positions in order to strengthen your own.

Understanding your neighbor

As part of my doctoral program in ethics, I recently picked up a copy of Peter Singer’s classic work Practical Ethics. This was the first time I read Singer’s work myself, but I was familiar with his line of argument for a particular form of ethical evaluation called preference utilitarianism. Singer has made waves in ethical and philosophical circles for decades, often making controversial claims about the nature of personhood and abortion, animal rights, and embryo experimentation. Originally published in 1979, the work has been reprinted countless times. Singer released two updated editions in 1993 and 2011. The book has become a staple in ethics courses across academic disciplines and has influenced countless readers, shaping their approach to ethics and morality.

As one who hopes to teach and continue to study in this field, I am behooved to be aware of these classic works and to be intimately familiar with their arguments. In so doing, I am able to better understand those around me and the true nature of the debates surrounding complex ethical decisions about the rise of technology, medicine, economics, and other social issues. Regardless of whether or not you plan to specialize in a field of study, being exposed to seminal works across a variety of disciplines can open up a world of ideas and a comprehension of your neighbors that is more than worth the time and effort.

One of the most devastating effects of the culture wars happening all around us, especially on online platforms like social media, is that we are often told that we need to be protected from the world of ideas or that reading something outside of our own beliefs might lead us down a path of destruction. While this is understandable to some extent, this siloing effect is dangerous to the life of the mind and treats the very concept of understanding our neighbors as a bridge too far.

Do we really think so little of our ability to think and reason that we cannot engage divergent positions or even allow them in the public square? Frequent examples of this are seen in our society such as Amazon delisting a book on transgenderism because it deviates from the secular orthodoxy on sexuality and the derision of entire concepts out of fear of being brainwashed. This happens on both sides of the political aisle. But one of the simplest things we can to ratchet down the tensions with our neighbors and seek to love them as ourselves is to put down our phones, pick up a book, and have an honest and humble conversation with someone who disagrees with our position on a particular topic. Living in a constant cycle of outrage shapes us into more cynical people and prevents us from growing in our faith. I am not saying that all ideas are equally valid, but regardless of what you take away from a book, it is worth the time and effort to comprehend your neighbor’s beliefs and engage them on their own terms.

Understand why you disagree

One of the joys of reading is growing in knowledge about the world around us, including those to whom we are called to minister and share the hope of the gospel with. But a second and extremely important reason behind reading things we disagree agree with is for our own personal growth. Over the years, I have found that I grow more by reading books outside of my own tribe than only reading those with whom I mostly agree. This is because when we are challenged in our own beliefs, we often dig deeper as we wrestle with various ideas and beliefs.

When reading or engaging the world of ideas, I am often reminded of the words of the Apostle Peter in 1 Peter 3:14-16 (emphasis mine):

“But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame.”

Reading books that you do not agree with or believe to be true can help sharpen your own ability to “make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you.” Not only will it push you to understand your own beliefs better, but it will also equip you to engage those around you in good conscience and faith.

Recently, I was reading a work by evangelical scholar Carl F.H. Henry and was struck by how he talked about divergent ideas. Henry was quick to give credit to various thinkers when they picked up a thread of truth. In his classic work, Christian Personal Ethics, he wrote that the “world did not need to wait for Utilitarianism to assert that benevolence is good, that whatever imperiled the public good was not virtuous, that true morality tends to the welfare of the social whole. The revealed morality of the Bible had affirmed all of this.” As I read his examinations of those ideas, it became clear that he was not afraid to engage ideas contrary to his own. Not only did this equip him to better understand the world around him, but it clearly helped strengthen his own convictions about the nature of truth, morality, and even the gospel itself.

So go grab a book, a cup of coffee, and a friend to dialogue with as you engage the world of ideas and grow in your ability to interact with contrary positions, all for the sake of loving others and sharing the transformative truth of the gospel message with your neighbor.

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By / Mar 23

In Louis L’Amour’s memoir, Education of a Wandering Man, he recounts the books he read over many years. These lists are significant for L’Amour. He read over 100 books most years. What is a man to gain from spending that much time devoted to reading? And if he decided reading is a worthwhile activity, how should one go about it?

Gene Veith, a literature professor and writer, would argue that reading is an important way to spend one’s time, especially for Christians. In his book, Reading Between the Lines: A Christian Guide to Literature, Veith helps readers understand how to read across different genres and time periods. But Veith’s apologetic for reading is so much more than just a guide to literature. Veith not only tells readers how to read but why we should even care to be readers. There’s a good chance that many haven’t thought about the terms Veith defines and explains since the last time they wrote a literary analysis was for an English class. With clear prose and astute assessments of history and culture, this isn’t a book just for the English major. Reading Between the Lines is a potent book for anyone who wants to be a better reader and thinker.

Reading and criticism 

Veith begins by discussing the importance of reading and criticism. Since God has used a Book to reveal himself, “reading can never die out among Christians” (17). The habits of the mind––attention, reasoning, exploration of ideas, and language expression, among others––that reading requires are habits that “support the Christian faith and lead to a healthy and free society” (25). Reading also helps form the Christian imagination by exercising our minds, helping us understand other people and their circumstances, satisfying our need for adventure, and allowing us to process and contemplate vicarious experiences. 

But Veith warns readers frankly about the indulgence of vicarious sin. And that’s where our criticism of books (and art in general) is essential. Does a work point us to the good and depict sin as evil? Reading good books should lead the reader to love the things God loves and hate the things God hates.

The forms of literature

The second section of the book considers the forms of literature: nonfiction, fiction, and poetry. When we think of nonfiction, we might think of a how-to manual or an encyclopedia, which we wouldn’t classify as good literature. However, Veith argues that good nonfiction reveals its meaning with beautiful language. Using Walter Wangerin Jr. and Annie Dillard as examples of great writers, Veith shows how good nonfiction will be concrete and tell the truth as it paints pictures with words. 

Fiction also tells the truth, though in a different way. While some claim fiction is nothing more than entertainment, Veith argues that “stories teach not by being preachy or tacking on a moral at the end, but by being good gripping stories” (61). He helps readers understand the elements of fiction while also circling back to some of his ideas of criticism and discernment. 

The final form of literature he examines is poetry. It is a shame that few people enjoy reading poetry in their leisure time. Poetry transcends time and place and is an important part of human expression. He argues, “Because poetry tends to address the whole person––the mind, the imagination, and the emotion––there may be no better way to cultivate a Christian sensibility and worldview (apart from reading Scripture) itself than to saturate oneself in Christian poetry” (80). 

What literature does

Veith shifts from considering what literature is to exploring what literature does. The modes of literature––tragedy, comedy, realism, and fantasy––help us understand this broken world we live in and the life yet to come. Although they seem like opposites, tragedy and comedy have much to say about damnation and salvation and the relationship between suffering and joy. Realism (taking ideas from the world around us) and fantasy (taking ideas from the world within us) can increase our perception of the people around us and the events transpiring. For example, Oliver Twist, a realist novel, moved people to act as their eyes were opened to the poor children that had been around them all along. Similarly, fantasy “elevates and disciplines the imagination, awakening it readers to the beauty of goodness as well as to the reclusiveness of evil” (132).

A window into worldviews

In the final section of book, Veith offers insight on how to read and understand authors from the Middle Ages through Postmodernism. Unlike any other medium, literature gives us a window to the worldview and culture of the times. Veith’s examination of the philosophy and worldview of different ages sheds light on how the Christian worldview will allow us to uphold the insights of the books of these eras “while avoiding their errors” (190). Reading literature from outside our context can also present ideas in a fresh and clear way, even though the text may be hundreds of years old. As we read literature of times long ago, we will better understand the time in which we live.

We should care to be good readers. Reading good literature will help sharpen our minds and stir our hearts’ affections for the things we ought to love. Reading Between the Lines is a valuable book for those who want to grow as readers and thinkers and offers enough book recommendations to last a long time. As we seek to influence the world with the good news of the gospel, we should remember that “the wielders of influence will always be those who read and write” (25).

By / Feb 26

On Sunday afternoon, conservative scholar and president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center Ryan T. Anderson received an online message from a would-be reader that his book When Harry Became Sally: Responding to the Transgender Moment was no longer available for purchase on Amazon’s website. The 2018 release from Encounter Books had been pulled by Amazon, without any prior notification to the author or publisher, for violating Amazon’s offensive content policy (though it would not clarify the reason for the move for several days). By Wednesday morning, and after considerable public outcry, the company released a statement about the book being removed from the marketplace. Amazon said it reserved the right not to sell certain products that violated its content guidelines. The statement claimed “All retailers make decisions about what selection they choose to offer and we do not take selection decisions lightly.”

When the book was originally removed by Amazon, search results recommended other works on transgenderism but from a very different ideological perspective, including a work written specifically as a rebuttal to Anderson’s 2018 book. As of this writing, the link is now a “dead link,” or 404 page on Amazon’s website, but the book has yet to be relisted. In the book, Anderson seeks to answer many of the questions that arise from the transgender movement and seeks to offer a scientific, philosophical, and ethical look at how transgenderism is seeking to rewrite human nature and reject biological realities.

In an essay about Amazon’s action to remove the book, Anderson noted that the book was praised by “the former psychiatrist-in-chief at Johns Hopkins Hospital, a longtime psychology professor at NYU, a professor of medical ethics at Columbia Medical School, a professor of psychological and brain sciences at Boston University, a professor of neurobiology at the University of Utah, a distinguished professor at Harvard Law School, an eminent legal philosopher at Oxford, and a professor of jurisprudence at Princeton.”

While there are many questions still unanswered about why this book was removed and why the decision was made three years after the book’s initial publication (and multiple reprints), one thing remains abundantly clear: a private company that sells nearly three out of every four books is using its outsized influence to shift the public conversation on a critical issue. There is little doubt that Amazon’s decision to silently remove the book from its cyber shelves was intentional. In the short term, this move will only help Anderson’s work on transgenderism gain a wider audience. But in the long term, it will have a chilling effect on the free exchange of ideas in our society. It is also likely to silence voices who dissent from the progressive agenda of the sexual revolution.

Conflicting content guidelines

Amazon, like many technology companies, including popular social media platforms, has a set of content guidelines about what it will allow on its platform. The guidelines begin by saying that “As a bookseller, we believe that providing access to the written word is important, including content that may be considered objectionable.” This is a laudable practice for a book retailer, especially for a company that began in 1994 with the goal of selling books online across the nation. Broad access to the written word allows for the free exchange of ideas and ultimately strengthens the social fabric of our nation as we openly debate important issues and engage ideas contrary to our own, even those ideas we find controversial or disagreeable.

But further down in their content guidelines, Amazon clearly walks this statement back. Apparently, “content that may be considered objectionable” does not include specific types of objectionable content. Amazon goes on to state, “We don’t sell certain content including content that we determine is hate speech, promotes the abuse or sexual exploitation of children, contains pornography, glorifies rape or pedophilia, advocates terrorism, or other material we deem inappropriate or offensive.” On balance, most of these exceptions appear to be reasonable and beneficial to society as a whole. However, “other material we deem inappropriate or offensive” is a vague and expansive statement that completely undermines the earlier goal of tolerance for opposing viewpoints.

This exception purportedly gives license for Amazon to remove any number of items from the marketplace, including three-year-old high selling titles that present a contrary viewpoint to the reigning secular opinions about human sexuality. Anderson’s book is now completely unavailable on Amazon, even to those who might want to engage the work in order to debunk his arguments or present an alternative viewpoint consistent with the tenets of the sexual revolution. All of this from a company that itself profited from the sales of the work for over three years and still allows other “intolerable” works that denigrate entire groups of people, including people of faith, for their view of human sexuality and human flourishing.

A better vision for the public square

Recently, many questions have arisen concerning the actions of these nascent technological marketplaces and social media companies to regulate content on their platforms. These questions include concerns about the stifling of free speech, the role of government in regulating private corporations like Amazon, Facebook, and Twitter, and the extent to which such companies are free to determine and enforce these policies on their own.

At present, Amazon’s removal of Anderson’s book from the marketplace does not technically involve issues of free speech under the First Amendment. And it is important to note that Anderson’s work is currently sold by other online retailers such as Barnes and Noble, independent bookstores, and even on his publisher’s website. But Amazon’s removal of a popular book under this overly broad—and easily abused—“inappropriate or offensive” policy is deeply distressing. It also raises pressing questions Christians must answer as we seek to build out a public theology for this technological age.

Digital content moderation or removal often leads to claims that a person’s freedom of speech or even freedom of religion is being violated. But this view fails to recognize that the First Amendment specifically protects individuals from the overreaching hands of government, not from content policies of private companies (no matter how errant or ill-advised such policies might be). Again, in this case there is no doubt that Amazon sought to wield its influence to shape public opinion on a critical matter of public concern by silencing dissenting voices. And given Amazon’s size and influence, it is possible that actions like this could result in inquiries about antitrust or lead to federal oversight, which could override Amazon’s ability to set its own content policies. 

In our view, Amazon is completely wrong for removing this book from the marketplace. Not only did Amazon violate its own stated policy of including content it deems objectionable, but it did so to deny users access to a countervailing argument to the ideology it deems in vogue. No one needs to be protected from a robust and informed public debate. As Alan Jacobs puts it, “Amazon clearly believe(s) there is only one reason to read a book. You read a book because you agree with it and want it to confirm what you already believe.” In this age of tolerance and inclusion, it is abundantly clear that only certain “acceptable” ideas will be tolerated, which is actually no form of tolerance at all. 

Time will tell if Amazon decides to reverse course and restore the book. Regardless of this particular outcome, it is obvious that we are living in a new era of human history—one in which powerful and often unrivaled technology companies wield enormous amounts of power over our public discourse. As Christians, the proper response is not fear or panic but to engage with convictional kindness, even as we work to maintain an open digital public square. We can engage these pressing concerns from a place of steadfast hope and confidence knowing that while our beliefs may not always be popular or fashionable, our beliefs reflect reality and ultimately lead to human flourishing.

By / Feb 26

The church is central to the story of black history in the United States. In Reading While Black, Dr. Esau McCaulley unpacks the many ways Scripture has been a resource for hope, perseverance, and justice in the African American experience. In spite of the dynamic role the black church has played in American history, its theological and historical significance is often understated. That is why this month we are taking a look at Dr. McCaulley’s book to further explore how the method of interpretation and reading Scripture has been an act of hope grounded in scriptural authority and the hope of the gospel

Here are select quotes from Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope

I am referring to the struggle between Black nihilism and Black hope. I am speaking of the ways in which the Christian tradition fights for and makes room for hope in a world that tempts us toward despair. I contend that a key element in this fight for hope in our community has been the practice of Bible reading and interpretation coming out of the Black church. p. 3

I want to contend that the best instincts of the Black church tradition—its public advocacy for justice, its affirmation of the worth of Black bodies and souls, its vision of a multiethnic community of faith—can be embodied by those who stand at the center of this tradition. This is a work against the cynicism of some who doubt that the Bible has something to say; it is a work contending for hope. p. 6 

My professors had a point. One does not have to dig very far into history to see that fundamentalist Christians in the South (and the North) have indeed inflicted untold harm on Black people. They have used the Bible as justification for their sins, personal and corporate. But there is a second testimony possibly more important than the first. That is the testimony of Black Christians who saw in that same Bible the basis for their dignity and hope in a culture that often denied them both. In my professor’s attempt to take the Bible away from the fundamentalists, he also robbed the Black Christian of the rock on which they stood. p. 8. 

I learned that too often alongside the four pillars of evangelicalism outlined above there were unspoken fifth and sixth pillars. These are a general agreement on a certain reading of American history that downplayed injustice and a gentlemen’s agreement to remain largely silent on current issues of racism and systemic injustice. p. 11

While I was at home with much of the theology in evangelicalism, there were real disconnects. First, there was the portrayal of the Black church in these circles. I was told that the social gospel had corrupted Black Christianity. Rather than placing my hope there, I should look to the golden age of theology, either at the early years of this country or during the postwar boom of American Protestantism. But the historian in me couldn’t help but realize that these apexes of theological faithfulness coincided with the nadirs of Black freedom. p. 11

The first ray of hope came from Frederick Douglass, whose words came to be something of a Balm in Gilead. He said, 

What I have said respecting and against religion, I mean strictly to apply to the slaveholding religion of this land, and with no possible reference to Christianity proper; for, between the Christianity of this land, and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference. . . . I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ: I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land.

Frederick then posits a distinction, not so much between Black Christianity and white, but between slaveholder religion and the Christianity of Jesus and the Bible.

Black Christianity historically, I would come to understand, has claimed that white slave master readings of the Bible used to undergird white degradation of Black bodies were not merely one manifestation of Christianity to be contrasted with another. Instead they said that such a reading was wrong. p. 16-17

Therefore, I contend that the enslaved person’s biblical interpretation, which gave birth to early Black biblical interpretation, was canonical from its inception. It placed Scripture’s dominant themes in conversation with the hopes and dreams of Black folks. It was also unabashedly theological, in that particular texts were read in light of their doctrine of God, their beliefs about humanity (anthropology) and their understanding of salvation (soteriology). p. 19

My claim then is that Black biblical interpretation has been and can be 

  • unapologetically canonical and theological. 
  • socially located, in that it clearly arises out of the particular context of Black Americans. 
  • willing to listen to the ways in which the Scriptures themselves respond to and redirect Black issues and concerns. 
  • willing to exercise patience with the text trusting that a careful and sympathetic reading of the text brings a blessing. 
  • willing to listen to and enter into dialogue with Black and white critiques of the Bible in the hopes of achieving a better reading of the text. p. 21

Peacemaking, then, cannot be separated from truth telling. The church’s witness does not involve simply denouncing the excesses of both sides and making moral equivalencies. It involves calling injustice by its name. If the church is going to be on the side of peace in the United States, then there has to be an honest accounting of what this country has done and continues to do to Black and Brown people. Moderation or the middle ground is not always the loci of righteousness. p. 68

The question isn’t always which account of Christianity uses the Bible. The question is which does justice to as much of the biblical witness as possible. There are uses of Scripture that utter a false testimony about God. This is what we see in Satan’s use of Scripture in the wilderness. The problem isn’t that the Scriptures that Satan quoted were untrue, but when made to do the work that he wanted them to do, they distorted the biblical witness. This is my claim about the slave master exegesis of the antebellum South. The slave master arrangement of biblical material bore false witness about God. This remains true of quotations of the Bible in our own day that challenge our commitment to the refugee, the poor, and the disinherited. p. 91

The Black Christian is often beset from the left and the right. Those on the right too often contend that the Bible speaks to their souls and not the liberation of their bodies. Those on the left maintain that those on the right are correct. The Bible doesn’t clearly address the needs of Black and Brown folks. Therefore, it must either be supplemented or replaced. I am not claiming that the Bible outlines the policies necessary for the proper functioning of a Democratic Republic. I am saying that it outlines the basic principles and critiques of power that equip Black Christians for their life and work in these United States. p. 94-95

God’s vision for his people is not for the elimination of ethnicity to form a colorblind uniformity of sanctified blandness. Instead God sees the creation of a community of different cultures united by faith in his Son as a manifestation of the expansive nature of his grace. This expansiveness is unfulfilled unless the differences are seen and celebrated, not as ends unto themselves, but as particular manifestations of the power of the Spirit to bring forth the same holiness among different peoples and cultures for the glory of God. p. 106

There are two groups that want to separate us from the Christian story. One group claims that Christianity is fundamentally a white religion. This is simply historically false. The center of early Christianity was in the Middle East and North Africa. But deeper than the historical question is the biblical one. Who owns the Christian story as it is recorded in the texts that make up the canon? I have contended that Christianity is ultimately a story about God and his purposes. That is good news. God has always intended to gather a diverse group of people to worship him. p. 117

It is difficult for the African American believer to look deeply into the history of Christianity and not be profoundly shaken. Insomuch as it arises in response to the church’s historic mistreatment of African Americans, the Black secular protest against religion is one of the most understandable developments in the history of the West. If they are wrong (and they are), it is a wrongness born out of considerable pain. I too am frustrated with the way that Scripture has been used to justify the continual assault on Black bodies and souls. If we come to different conclusions about the solutions to those problems, it is not because Black Christians deny the past. It is simply that we found different solutions within the biblical witness to Black suffering and anger. We do not find fault with the broad center of the great Christian tradition. We lament its distortion by others and the ways in which we have failed to live up to the truths we hold dear. Nonetheless, we are not ashamed of finding hope and forgiveness in and through the cross of Christ. In the end, we plead and have confidence in the blood. p. 136

I argued that the Old and New Testaments, even the letters of Paul, provide us with the theological resources to dismantle slavery. It is simply false to claim that the Old and New Testaments simply baptize the institutions as they find them. Instead, the Scriptures raise tensions between the central themes of the Bible and slavery. p. 162

Alongside the vibrancy of evangelicalism, there was, in spirit if not always in practice, an emphasis on the equality of all people due to the belief that all were sinners in need of God’s grace. The equal need for grace spoke to the equal worth of Black bodies and souls, making conversion to this form of Christianity a realistic possibility. Furthermore, the flexible polities of Baptist and later Methodist churches made it easier for African Americans to form their own independent churches and denominations when racism forced them out of white churches. Here in these newly formed Black churches and denominations we have our first extensive record of the Black encounter with the Bible. p. 169

The emphasis on the Bible in evangelical circles spurred on the Black desire for literacy. Learning to read the Bible helped expand the world and imagination of slaves, making them more difficult to control. This led to attempts to limit Bible reading among slaves out of fear it might cause rebellion. Slave masters’ fear of the Bible must bear some indirect testimony to what the slave masters thought it said. Part of them knew that their exegetical conclusions could only be maintained if the enslaved were denied firsthand experience of the text. This is evidence to my mind that Bible reading was itself an act against despair and for hope. p. 170

Most Black writers from this period saw in the texts of the Old and New Testament a message calling for liberation from actual slavery. This call for the end of slavery did not mean that they neglected personal salvation from sin. This call for individual and societal transformation within the context of the historic confessions of Christianity is what I came to think of as the mainstream or at least a significant strand of the Black ecclesial tradition. p. 171

The witness of the traditional black church in the United States testifies to the power of the Gospel and the sufficiency of Scripture. Reading While Black is an excellent resource to better understand how the black church has utilized Scripture to make sense of the many joys and challenges of the African American experience. 

By / Jan 20

Editor’s Note: This interview is part of a series engaging the authors of new or notable books. Because discipleship and spiritual formation go hand in hand, the goal of this series is to introduce you to beneficial and enriching works in order to better equip you to love God with your mind as well as your heart and strength. Find the entire series here.

In our modern age, our problem “is not that churches are too deep, but too shallow.” That is just one of the insights you’ll find in this interview with J.T. English about his book, Deep Discipleship. English exemplifies the best of what it means to be a pastor-theologian. As a shepherd, he is interested in caring for the hearts and souls of believers. As a theologian, he seeks to help Christians love God with their minds. And far from being at odds with one another, English shows us that sound theology leads to more intimate knowledge of God, the kind that is truly life-changing. Read below to discover even more wisdom from English’s important book on discipleship.

You’re well known for stating that “theology is the most practical thing in the world,” which you do a good job of modeling for readers in Deep Discipleship. Can you unpack that statement for us? Many people think of theology as purely intellectual. Could you explain why you believe theology is actually very practical?

Sometimes theology gets a bad reputation in the church. Unfortunately, sometimes theology can be used in the church to cause harm or to create distance between Christians. I know that when I first became a Christian, the idea of doing theology sounded very academic and intellectual. It wasn’t until I learned what theology was that I realized that theology is for everyone. Theology is, in its most basic form, words about God. Everyone has thoughts, ideas, and words about God—even atheists. I began to realize that theology is not the cold, distant, and intellectual enterprise I had thought, but rather, it was the most practical thing in the world. The question is not, “Are you a theologian?” but, “Are you a good theologian?” At the heart of Deep Discipleship is the hope that every member in our local churches would recapture the idea that they are invited into the task of theology—the task of singing, praying, and glorifying our Triune God.

In the book, you argue that the church has a “discipleship disease” that we’ve often misdiagnosed and mistreated. What is the church’s discipleship disease, and how ought we treat it?

As with any disease, treatment of the disease hinges on correctly diagnosing the disease. In my experience, most churches are primarily interested in lowering the bar for participation in the life of the church. We see people leaving our churches, students leaving the faith as they go to college, and perhaps most importantly a lack of seriousness among our members about what it means to be a follower of Christ. As the church has examined these symptoms of our disease, many have come to the conclusion that we are asking too much, not too little of people. I believe that is the wrong diagnosis. 

Our discipleship disease is not that churches are too deep, but too shallow. People leave our churches not because we have given too much of Christ, but far too little. We are building philosophies of ministry that give people a shallow and generic spirituality when we need to give them distinctive Christianity. We have developed ministry approaches that seek to grow crowds, not grow Christians. In Deep Discipleship, I argue that churches need to adopt ministry paradigms that focus on growing deep and holistic disciples of Jesus.

There are a couple of statements in your book that have taken on new significance since the pandemic forced the church to make some adaptations. You say, “Virtual discipleship cannot create deep disciples” (55), and, “The fastest way to disrupt a journey of deep discipleship is to forsake regularly gathering together with the church” (87). So, in this “time of plague,” as Russell Moore calls it, how can churches continue to pursue deep discipleship when so much has changed?

I am so thankful that so many churches have been able to pivot their ability to preach Christ and make disciples in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. In my own ministry setting at Storyline Fellowship, we are constantly trying to think of ways we can stay engaged with our people and our community in the midst of so much change. In light of all of that, I am not of the opinion that church has changed forever. On the contrary, the church has an opportunity to recover the New Testament vision for what it means to be a church. The church is not built on circumstances, the church is built on Scripture. We have the opportunity to recover what it means for us to be the people of God, filled with the presence of God, in the places God has situated us, pursuing the purpose God has given us—to preach Christ crucified.

Hand-in-hand with growing as a disciple of Jesus, you say, is being a student of his Word (108). What are two or three pieces of counsel you would give to Christians (or non-Christians) who desire to develop as readers of Scripture? 

At the heart of being a disciple is to be a learner. We are called to learn the way of Jesus, by the power of the Spirit, through Scripture. No disciple ever graduates from being a student of God’s Word. The best ways to grow as a student of the Bible are to: 1) Read the Bible regularly; 2) Read the Bible prayerfully; and 3) Read the Bible in community.

You’re adamant that the vision of deep discipleship laid out in the book is “scalable, sustainable, and strategic for any church” (187). There are many churches out there that would like to develop more depth in their discipleship practices but are afraid they don’t have enough staff or adequate funding. Can this really be done in any church?

The answer to this question is an unequivocal yes! I have seen so many churches begin to adopt this philosophy of ministry and they are seeing beautiful fruit in their people. If your discipleship strategy is entirely dependent on staff, you are not making disciples who make disciples. This paradigm shift to deep discipleship invites churches to invest in a vision for the church that is not dependent on more staff, but on creating holistic disciples.

Over the last several decades, there seems to have been a trend in the church that has prioritized community over and above theological education. What, would you say, have been the effects of this? Why should churches recapture a vision for theological education that takes place in the local church?

Community is indispensable to discipleship, but community is not synonymous with discipleship. Over the past decade most churches have gauged their ability to make disciples with their ability to connect people to community. This is a bad metric. If our only goal is to put people in community, it is possible that all we are doing is pooling ignorance. The goal cannot simply be putting people into community, but putting people into specific communities that are learning about the way of Jesus together.

You talk often in the book about your wife, Macy, and the impact that she’s had on you as a disciple-maker, saying that “no one has taught you more about God” than she has. What’s the most important thing that you’ve learned from your wife about God?

My wife is my best friend, and it is true that nobody has taught me more about God than her. Specifically, she has taught me how to joyfully follow Jesus through suffering. Macy is one of the most joy-filled people I know, but she has also suffered immensely. Watching her lean into Jesus through her suffering has been one of the best theology lessons I have ever learned.

You can order Deep Discipleship here.

By / Oct 6

NASHVILLE, Tenn., Oct. 6, 2020—Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, released his latest book today, “The Courage to Stand: Facing Your Fear Without Losing Your Soul,” published by B&H Publishing Group.

In “The Courage to Stand,” Moore calls readers to a Christ-empowered courage by pointing the way to real freedom from fear—the way of the cross. In the book, Moore defines the way of the cross as integrity through brokenness, community through loneliness, power through weakness and a future through irrelevance.

Throughout “The Courage to Stand,” Moore inspires readers to discover real freedom from fear by addressing issues such as: 

  • Courage and Crisis
  • Courage and Anxiety
  • Courage and Integrity
  • Courage and Justice
  • Courage and the Future

“The way of courage, as defined by the gospel, is not the pagan virtue of steeliness and fearlessness, much less our ambient culture’s picture of winning and displaying, or strength and swagger. The call to courage is terrifying because the call to courage is a call to be crucified,” Moore says.

During a time when people are experiencing angst about the future, Moore illuminates for readers in “The Courage to Stand” how fear is rooted in the idea that we might lose our belonging in whatever tribe in which we seek safety, or simply, that we might have to stand alone. He calls readers to a Christ-centered courage that equips us to face our fear and keep walking toward the voice that calls us homeward. 

About Russell Moore

Moore is the author of several books including The Storm-Tossed Family: How the Cross Reshapes the Home,” which was named Christianity Today’s 2019 Book of the Year. This prestigious award was also conferred upon Moore’s book, “Onward: Engaging the Culture Without Losing the Gospel,” by Christianity Today in 2016. In addition to these titles, he has also written “Adopted for Life: The Priority of Adoption for Christian Families and Churches” and “Tempted and Tried: Temptation and the Triumph of Christ.”

The Wall Street Journal called Moore “vigorous, cheerful and fiercely articulate.” He was named in 2017 to Politico Magazine’s list of top fifty influence-makers in Washington and has been profiled by such publications as the Washington Post, the New Yorker and the Weekly Standard. A native Mississippian, Moore and his wife Maria are the parents of five sons.

By / Sep 16

Several years ago Christian Smith made waves with his book The Bible Made Impossible, which argued that the “pervasive interpretive pluralism” of Scripture within evangelicalism gave evidence to an inconsistent doctrine of Scripture. Other scholars such as Peter Enns and Kenton Sparks have more recently made similar arguments against the evangelical approach to Scripture. It is not uncommon to see more crude forms of this argument on social media also, where the evangelical belief in inerrancy is dismissed on the basis that evangelicals themselves so often disagree on the interpretation of Scripture. 

Enter Rhyne Putman’s new book When Doctrine Divides the People of God: An Evangelical Approach to Theological Diversity. Putman has formerly written on an evangelical understanding of the historical development of doctrine, and now he focuses on what could be called an evangelical doctrine of disagreement. Its starting point is similar to James K. A. Smith’s argument in The Fall of Interpretation that disagreement is a natural part of the interpretive process, which itself is a natural part of the human condition. Putman then charts the path forward from this truth. It is not written primarily as an apologetic to those outside of evangelicalism, but to evangelicals on constructive ways to approach doctrinal differences.

Why we disagree about doctrine

When Doctrine Divides the People of God is divided up into two major sections, with the first focused on the why question (“Why we disagree about doctrine”) and the second on the what question (“What we should do about doctrinal disagreement”). 

The first section describes the steps along the reasoning process where disagreements often arise. The first two chapters of this section focus specifically on hermeneutics and exegesis, areas that will be familiar for readers with training in biblical interpretation or hermeneutics. However, Putman’s eye toward doctrinal diversity within the hermeneutics discussion sets these chapters apart from typical textbook treatments. 

The third chapter on reasoning is where things get really interesting. Putman highlights the roles of deduction, induction, and abduction in the reasoning process. Particularly important here is the role of abduction, described as inferential reasoning through an incomplete set of data. Whereas deduction proves a hypothesis and induction tests a hypothesis, abduction forms a new hypothesis. He likens this process to the detective forming a hypothesis and then using clues such as fruitfulness, coherence, simplicity, and credibility to test the hypothesis. This separates abduction from mere guesswork and creative speculation. Although Putman notes the creative aspect of this process, he pushes the reader continually back to Scripture itself, rather than individual creativity, as the foundation of theological interpretation and formulation.

In the next three chapters Putman highlights several factors within the reasoning process that often lay in the background unchallenged such as intuition, feelings, and biases. As he notes, “Christian theologians have long recognized the role experience plays in our theological formation, but seldom mentioned in our hermeneutical and theological discussions is the crucial role emotions and intuitions play in the formation of Christian doctrine” (122). 

Many theological disagreements arise in just these areas, and so Putman’s walk through them in discussion with neuroscience and social psychology is a valuable tool for theological dialogue. Putman doesn’t let social or biological sciences have the last word in the discussion—he continually pushes back against naturalistic implications in the works he summarizes—but demonstrates how certain findings within these fields can provide opportunities for self-examination and reasoning in the process of theological development.  

What should we do about it? 

The second section of the book moves from the descriptive to the prescriptive, focused on the response to doctrinal disagreements. Although this section is smaller than the first by page count, it’s where Putman’s work packs the greatest punch. It is one thing to acknowledge doctrinal disagreements, but another to move through them with both keen self-awareness and Christian charity toward other positions. This section provides the way forward in both manners. 

The first chapter of this section, chapter seven, magnifies the self-reflection process by asking the question, when should we change our minds? In this chapter Putman moves through a series of diagnostic questions related to theological disagreement. These questions include:

  1. Are we working with the same body of evidence?
  2. If I disagree with a tenet from a particular tradition, am I interacting with its best and most sophisticated representations or with a straw man?
  3. Who exhibits a more thorough understanding of the relevant background material?
  4. Who exhibits greater theological acumen and exegetical skill?
  5. Do both parties evidence adequate time spent assessing the disputed issue?
  6. Do both disagreeing parties display the intellectual virtues such as curiosity, studiousness, persistence, and intellectual honesty?
  7. Does the person with whom I disagree exhibit the fruit of the Spirit?

Each of these questions is important for thinking through theological disputes because they each force acknowledgment of the full weight of other positions.

The eighth chapter builds on Albert Mohler’s idea of theological triage by formulating a tiered system for thinking through doctrinal disagreements. He gives three tests for thinking through these tiers based on hermeneutics, gospel, and praxis, with an eye toward mediation between theological maximalism (everything is equally important) and theological minimalism (unity over doctrine). 

The final chapter provides a test case of this system based on the disagreement and eventual reconciliation of George Whitefield and John Wesley on the issue of Calvinism vs. Arminianism. Putman uses their personal friendship and professional fellowship as the basis for thinking charitably through disagreements with fellow believers.

Putman’s book is helpful on several levels of theological reflection. It combines hermeneutics, philosophy, and theological method to provide insight into personal doctrinal reasoning and doctrinal dialogue with fellow believers. This type of reasoning is particularly necessary and valuable in the age of social media, where disagreements often turn vitriolic and the unity that Christ prayed for in John 17 is dismissed in favor of winning arguments. Putman doesn’t dismiss doctrinal disagreements but gives place for thinking through them in community with other believers. This book will be a valuable asset for any student of theology as a tool for both personal theological formulation and doctrinal discussions with others.