Best of 2020 … (Books, a few excellent blog posts & videos … and a deepfake)

One last look at 2020….

First, let me talk about some really good books….

If there was one ironic benefit of the coronavirus pandemic lockdowns of 2020, it was that it gave me a chance to read some more books. Most of them I “read” via Audible, or the Kindle “Speech-to-Text” feature with the Amazon Alexa app for Android (which was new to me and is pretty cool!!), listening to them as I took my exercise riding my bike all around the pathways of our rural county, as the pandemic curtailed much of my commuting into work. Increasing the reading to 1.25 speed helped, too, and then I could go back and review, if I missed parts. Here are some of the best books I enjoyed, that I commend to others:

  • Tactics, by Greg Koukl.  Hands down, this 10th anniversary edition of Tactics is the best book I read in 2020, and immensely practical. Koukl does a fantastic job giving the Christian a set of tactics to use, to enable anyone to have a good conversation about spiritual matters with just about anyone else. Tactics is like the Christian version of How to Have Impossible Conversations, written by Peter Boghossian and James Lindsay, that I read in 2019 (and re-read alongside Tactics in 2020). These books made me realize how much improvement I need in my communication and conversation skills with others. I will be going back to reference these books for A LONG TIME.   Reviewed here at Veracity.
  • Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World, by Tom Holland. While Koukl’s book is immensely practical, Tom Holland’s book was the most intellectually stimulating read of the year. Tom Holland is a British popular historian, specializing in ancient and medieval history, but his latest book takes a 2,000 year journey through the history of the West, showing how Christianity made the Western world, contrary to a more secular narrative, that sees Christianity as an impediment to the flourishing of today’s global society. Holland made me stop and think a lot, reminding me that the case for atheism really can not be made without acknowledging a debt to Christianity. Most secular atheists unconsciously accept certain Christian presuppositions, without giving them a second thought. If you have conversations with atheists, and you are not quite sure how to respond to them, Dominion is essential reading. Reviewed here on Veracity. Pastor Tim Keller wrote a sober and appreciative review for the book here, that might be entitled as “Nietzsche was right”.
  • The Crucible of Faith, by Philip Jenkins. While Tactics was the most practical, and Dominion the most intellectually stimulating, Philip Jenkins book on the period of Second-Temple Judaism was the most faith-challenging book I read in 2020. A thought-provoking introduction to the “time between the Testaments,” looking at the crucial historical period after the (near) completion of the Old Testament and before the writing of the New, where most of the central interpretive theological frameworks, that connect the Old and the New Testaments come together. It showed me just how ignorant I was, as a Protestant, of how important the study of Second Temple Judaism is in properly understanding the Bible as a whole. Crucible of Faith forced me to rethink my view of biblical inspiration, and how progressive revelation through the Scriptures actually works. Surprisingly, Jenkins has a liberal historical-critical bias here, when it comes to the Bible, that I could have skipped, but the historical narrative Jenkins portrays is so captivating, that I ended up reading the book twice!
  • J. I. Packer: An Evangelical Life, by Leland Ryken. Ryken wrote an excellent biography several years ago about J. I. Packer, one of evangelicalism’s greatest statesmen, of the modern era. Really inspiring. Packer died in July, 2020. We lost a great soul here. I am so thankful that he served his Lord so faithfully. Reviewed here on Veracity.
  • Grounded in the Gospel: Building Believers the Old-Fashioned Way, by J.I. Packer and Gary Parrett. One of Packer’s final books, Packer and Parrett make a cogent and urgent case for restoring the practice of catechesis, or Christian instruction in basic doctrine, to the life of evangelical churches, for the sake of the future of the church.  It has become my conviction, that every church needs to seriously consider implementing catechismal instruction, across all age groups, particularly in view of our post-modern society. Reviewed here at Veracity.
  • Angels, by Michael Heiser. A somewhat academic, yet eye-opening treatment on the topic of angels, correcting a lot of falsehoods that Christians (and others) sometimes believe about angels. Reviewed here on Veracity. This is a side topic that rabbit trails off of Dr. Heiser’s major work, The Unseen Realm. I also started reading Heiser’s Brief Insights of Master Bible Study, short devotional-type readings, that have encouraged me to be a better student of the Scriptures. Fantastic stuff. Brief Insights of Master Bible Study was reviewed here at Veracity.
  • Did America Have a Christian Founding?, by Mark David Hall. A scholarly, responsible reading of the theological orientation of the Founding Fathers. Hall makes a provocative case that the Founding Fathers were generally more “Christian” than proposed by other evangelical historians. Hall’s thesis might be a stretch in some areas, but he thankfully avoids the irresponsible pitfalls that you find among some popular Christian authors, such as David Barton. Reviewed here on Veracity.
  • God of Liberty: A Religious History of the American Revolution, by Thomas Kidd. A very balanced presentation of the history of the American Revolution, with special attention paid to evangelical Christian concerns. I used Kidd as the main source for teaching an Adult Bible Class on American Church History, at my church in the winter/spring of 2020.
  • Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul, by John M. Barry. A fantastic look at the life and times of Roger Williams, the founder of the colony of Rhode Island. Barry convincingly shows how evangelical Christian faith is at the very roots of contemporary ideas behind religious freedom. Interestingly, Barry is also the author of The Great Influenza, about the 1919 Spanish Flu pandemic, which has helped many readers survive the great coronavirus pandemic of 2020!
  • Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel, by Kate Bowler. Bowler gives us a definitive history of the prosperity gospel movement, that threatens to corrupt the historic Gospel of Christianity. Interestingly, Bowler’s work is not a theological critique, and she comes across as sympathetic to her subject. But she manages to trace the historical development of prosperity theology in a way that is very surprising. I had no idea how pervasive and subtle the prosperity gospel is until I read Bowler. Reviewed here at Veracity.
  • Studies in Words, by C.S. Lewis. Lewis is an expert in the English language, and he gives a number of examples of how the meanings of words change over time. In an era when the pace of social change comes quickly, and words easily change their meaning, I have found Lewis to be very helpful in the age of social media. Reviewed here at Veracity.
  • The Genealogical Adam and Eve: The Surprising Science of Universal Ancestry, by Joshua Swamidass. A much appreciated attempt to try to reconcile Young Earth, Old Earth, and Evolutionary Creationism, all in one book. Swamidass makes a case for an historical Adam and Eve, 6,000 years ago, who are the genealogical parents of today’s human beings, without necessarily being the genetic parents of all humans who have ever existed. I hope that Swamidass’ peacemaking project is successful. The church needs peace in this disputed area of doctrine!! Reviewed here at Veracity.
  • Eden Was Here: New Evidence for the Historicity of Genesisby Glenn Morton, a Christian geologist and apologist, who died in 2020. This was Glenn’s last book, written by one of the most provocative thinkers in looking at the creation vs. evolution controversy. Glenn fully accepted the contemporary science of an ancient earth, with an evolutionary origin of humanity, but he nevertheless sought to reconcile science with a fully historical account of the early chapters of Genesis. This was Glenn’s last stand, in making a valiant, if not at times, greatly contrarian, defense of the Bible. I dare any Young Earth Creationist to read it! Reviewed here at Veracity.
  • Confronting Old Testament Controversies, by Tremper Longman. Veteran Old Testament scholar Tremper Longman writes a much needed book for Christians, addressing various attempts by other Christian scholars to rethink the Old Testament, in an age influenced by the “New Atheism.” Longman finds several of these revisionist attempts to be lacking, but he interacts with  critics in a very irenic fashion. Offers much needed help to Christians, who are hesitant to embrace the Old Testament. Longman has helped me to wrestle with some of my doubts concerning the Old Testament. Reviewed here at Veracity.
  • Hebrews for Everyone, by N.T. Wright. I like reading good commentaries as I prepare lessons for my small group Bible study, so this was a good fit for our group’s study of Hebrews this year. Wright’s For Everyone series is really designed for folks who want a general overview of different blocks of passages, as opposed to digging into a verse-by-verse study, which is more my preference. Nevertheless, Wright’s Hebrews study is very solid, and easy reading. N.T. Wright is like a writing machine!
  • Weathering Climate Change, by Hugh Ross. From a fully evangelical Christian perspective, a much needed look at a vexing problem facing the whole world, that takes the science seriously, but that does not demand draconian political measures to try to address it. A mix of detailed scientific analysis made accessible to non-experts, along with very creative solutions, that should be taken seriously. Reviewed here at Veracity.
  • Algorithms to Live By: The Computer Science of Human Decisions, by Brian Christian & Tom Griffiths. Though I read a good bit of theology and history, I really enjoy science books, and I finally finished this one that I started to read a few years ago. Christian & Griffiths have written about how the discipline of computer science gives us insights into how humans make decisions…. and sometimes how irrational we can all be. This book is void of anything spiritual, so would be helpful if a Christian theologian could write a book about this topic.
  • In Search of Ancient Roots: The Christian Past and the Evangelical Identity Crisis, by Kenneth Stewart. Finally finished this book I started a few years ago, exploring why some evangelical Protestants become Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox. While the vast number of shifts are from Roman Catholic to Protestant, or Eastern Orthodox to Protestant, there is still a minority, yet growing number of evangelical Protestants who move in the opposite direction. John Henry Newman, the great 19th century Roman Catholic theologian, said, “To be deep in history is to cease to be a Protestant.‘ As an enthusiastic student of church history, I can attest to there being a lot of truth in this statement. Then there is this quote by Eastern Orthodox theologian, Jaroslav Pelikan, that rings very true for me: “Tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.” I have not completely felt the pull to move away from evangelical Protestantism for good, but there are a number of times when evangelicalism just drives me nuts. This book effectively explains why.
  • What Does God Want, by Michael Heiser.  A short primer on the Gospel, meant as an evangelistic tool, to be given to folks raised in a church, but who find much of traditional evangelical Christianity to be lacking in telling a cohesive grand narrative, that takes into account some of the most difficult passages of the Bible. This might become my “go-to” evangelistic book to hand out to seekers wanting to know Jesus. Ironically, there is a hunger for a deeper knowledge of the Bible among many Christians, that many church-goers are simply not getting from popular megachurch evangelicalism, and Dr. Heiser is seeking to help people grasp that grand Scriptural narrative, for believers and non-believers alike. May his tribe increase!

Here are my books of the decade and books of 2019 posts, previously noted on Veracity. Looking back, I have come to conclude that Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind was the best book of the decade. It has really helped me keep a lot of things in perspective, in such a wild and crazy year as 2020.

Next, let me talk about some blog posts….

Normally each year, I write a blog summarizing the best blog posts of the year, but I pretty much have already done that a few months ago. I will highlight a few of the most interesting and important blog posts that folks might benefit from, that have been published since early September. But let me preface with a caveat….

Last year, I wrote a post, “Reflections on Seven Years of Internet Blogging.” I am more convinced now that blogging, particularly of the long-form kind, that I’ve been putting out here on Veracity, is still valuable, but I do think that exhaustion over social media has caused a lot of blogging to suffer. YouTube video offerings still seem to be big, however… so I have included a few video links below as well.

So, yes, I want to talk about some videos, too…

People tend to respond more to video than to written text. After all, if someone had simply written about the death of George Floyd, it probably would not have brought so much attention…. it took a video to explode the nation. But that is deeply concerning, particularly with the development of more and more convincing DeepFake technology, that can so easily fool us, and breed a horrifyingly lack of discernment, that so plagues the post-modern world, including Christians. A case in point… here is the U.K.’s Channel4, doing their own DeepFake video, mimicking the original Christmas message that Queen Elizabeth delivered last week, that I was encouraged by and posted on Veracity the other day…. If we can be fooled by technology, why put so much of our trust in it?

Back to reality now….

Kind of a hodge-podge of posts here, but to me, these are all thought provoking…. go ahead and skim through it, as your interest will indeed vary, but you should stick around for the video at the bottom. It sums up the year exceedingly well:

  • The Beauty of Complementarity Between Male and Female: British pastor Andrew Wilson has written an excellent summary showing how complementarity between male and female is so important and beautiful, and why churches need to develop a theology that can be lived out in sacramentally distinctive ways.  It perfectly summarizes what I have been trying to articulate on the Veracity blog over the past two years, that seeks to navigate a middle-way between a rigid complementarianism, that sadly excludes women from fully utilizing their gifts for ministry in the church, and a “woke” egalitarianism, that preaches that male and female are simply interchangeable cogs in the machinery of “big-box” evangelicalism today, a product of a corporate mindset that permeates significant segments of the evangelical world. Most of my critics never bother to read my arguments, but perhaps they might read Andrew Wilson’s excellent summary instead, and let me know what they think? Here is a gem from Wilson’s conclusion:
    • This is what makes it so crucial that we practise what we preach on the church as family. To deny that women can be elders will sound like the equivalent of denying that women can be CEOs, but it is more like the equivalent of denying that women can be fathers, and that men can be mothers. But for that to be grounded in reality, it is vital that the church is not just said to be a family, but seen to be a family; that we recognise fathers and mothers and honour and revere them as such, rather than (as can easily happen) operating with a fundamentally corporate model in which women are simply excluded from all the key positions or discussions.”  Well put!  READ IT AT THINKTHEOLOGY IN THE U.K.!
  • Do infants automatically get saved?: Another gem from Andrew Wilson covers the question, “DO BABIES GO TO HEAVEN?” What really encourages me is that Wilson finds that there are good reasons why Scripture can be so clear on some matters and less clear on other matters (like this one).
  • The Best Way to Teach the Bible on YouTube Verse-by-Verse?: Speaking of John Piper, this retired pastor has taken on the task of using YouTube as a means of helping people study the Scriptures verse by verse, with the YouTube hashtag #LookAtTheBook. Here is a ten minute segment on 2 Timothy 3:14-17. An excellent resource.
  • Another “Statement”?: There is the Philadelphia Statement, which I whole heartedly endorse. On the other hand, I think enthusiasm for these kind of statements (think the Nashville Statement, the Statement of Social Justice, etc.) is starting to wane. I call it “statement fatigue.”
  • Does John Walton Really Teach Gnosticism?: In the latest on the never ending battle between Young Earth Creationism, and other Creationist readings of Genesis, a young blogger Evan Minton responds to an argument by the film producer of Is Genesis History?, that seeks to critique Wheaton College’s John Walton, and his “Cosmic Temple Inauguration”  approach to Genesis. In-depth reading, particular for those who believe the myth that Creationists, who do not subscribe to a Young Earth interpretation of Genesis, do not believe the Bible. This debate will probably continue until Jesus’ returns.
  • Walter Hooper:  The man who worked nearly full-time since 1963 to keep C. S. Lewis’ literary legacy alive and in print, died in December, 2020, from complications when suffering from COVID-19. Joseph Loconte wrote an obituary for Walter Hooper in The National Review. Lewis was convinced that no one would continue to read his books, after his death. What fascinated me the most about Hooper, in this article, is that Hooper followed in Lewis’ footsteps to become an Anglican, but then converted to Roman Catholicism. Hooper believed that Lewis would have also converted to Catholicism, had Lewis lived longer, into the 1980s, as the Church of England became increasingly more liberal. Here is a link to a YouTube interview video of Hooper.
  • A critique of The Bible Project’s approach to the atonement?: I am a big fan of The Bible Project , so I would want to take any valid criticism seriously. Pastor Sweatman offers some thoughtful criticism, but I am not persuaded that the creators of The Bible Project reject the concept of propitiation, as Sweatman suggests.

AND FINALLY…. a way to end off the year 2020, by looking back, in a humorous way….. that does not really have anything overtly theological in it at all.

Some independent film company in California put together this 18-minute film, back in October, that perfectly summarizes pretty much all that has happened in the year 2020…. Australia fires, locust attacks in Africa, wildfires in California, Black Lives Matter protests, and obviously, the coronavirus….  (of course, being released in October, it has nothing about the Presidential election, the announcement of a COVID-19 vaccine, or the Nashville Christmas bombing). I have not seen the movie 1917, which supposedly has a really long, single scene shot, at the beginning of the movie. But this 2020 film is meant to parody 1917, with the same, single long film shot, look and feel.  So, with that, I wish all of you Veracity readers an end to crazy 2020, and a Happy New Year, for 2021 !!


All That’s Good: Recovering the Lost Art of Discernment: Reading Hannah Anderson While Thinking About 2020

We need discernment now more than ever. But it appears to be a disappearing commodity. Especially in 2020.

When I was growing up in the 1970s, Walter Cronkite was the most trusted man in America. There were only three sources of evening news television: CBS, ABC and NBC, but my parents liked Cronkite on CBS the best.

That started to change in the mid-1970s, when the Watergate affair blew the lid off of America’s innocence. While Nixon and his White House staff were under scrutiny practically every night, the MacNeil/Lehrer Report premiered on PBS, to eventually become the PBS Newshour. Having a new choice in where to get news was refreshing. Getting the news was still pretty simple back then, but it was about to get more complicated.

Way more complicated.

Cable TV in the 1980s brought a plethora of new television channels, along with other news networks. By 1992, Bruce Springsteen wrote the song “57 Channels (And Nothin’ On).” And that was before the Internet exploded.

 

Fast forward to the beginning of the third decade of the 21st century. Except for my mother-in-law, I do not know anyone who watches the 6:30 Evening News anymore. We all have our cultivated social media feeds, podcasts, and streaming radio news sources, designed to fit our preferences. Not since the dawn of movable type, that catapulted an obscure German monk, Martin Luther, to become the best known person in Europe, have we seen anything like it, in world history. For medieval Europe, the voice of Rome was the voice of newsworthy authority, until Luther came along, as the catalyst for the Protestant Reformation.

Luther almost single-handedly cracked the traditional authority of the medieval church, through the power of his printed words, as they rolled off the printing press. Then when Luther came into conflict with other Reformers, over the nature of the Lord’s Supper, even the Protestant Reformation movement began to splinter. The Christian church obviously survived the crisis, and even thrived as Christianity continued to spread across the world. However, the church was fractured in ways that we are still deeply struggling with, 500 years later. The voice of Rome became but one voice, alongside a plethora of Protestant voices. But this is nothing like what we have with the Internet and social media landscape, of the first quarter of the 21st century.

Historian Brad S. Gregory makes the case in his The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society (another book on my to-be read list), that the unintended consequences of the Protestant Reformation have led to “hyperpluralism of beliefs, intellectual disagreements that splinter into fractals of specialized discourse, the absence of a substantive common good, and the triumph of capitalism’s driver, consumerism.” These days I tend to think that he might be right.

You can even go to a website now that displays “The Media Bias Chart,” showing how an amazing spread of news organizations, including Christian ones, fall on a scale, with “Neutral” in the middle, and “Most Extreme Left” to “Most Extreme Right,” on either side. There are so many “news sources” out there now, I can not even count them all. All you need is an iPhone and an Internet connection, and you can become your own news source.

The Internet has revolutionized global society, and taken the Christian church with it. Today, we have Protestantism on-steroids. Everyone has their “own interpretation” about everything, it seems. And, as a professional Information Technology specialist, who builds computer networks for a living, I helped to make it all happen.

YIKES!

Even scarier: I have been in the business of computer science and Internet technology for 35 years… and not once has a church pastor or youth group leader asked me (or someone else, with my technical background … I freely admit that I am not the best speaker) to speak to parents about how Internet technology really works. Now, perhaps such church leaders have other resources to help address this problem. I pray that this is, in fact, the case. But my honest observation, from my vantage point, is that most church leaders take a “head in the sand” approach to social media.

A recent documentary, The Social Dilemma, features interviews with Internet technologists at Google, Facebook, and other monster social media companies, explaining how the simple practice of searching for something in a Google search box, or thumbing through new entries in your Pinterest feed, has been carefully tailored to manipulate you, and get you hooked on using the technology. Technology pioneers, like Microsoft founder Bill Gates, and the late inventor of the Apple iPhone, Steve Jobs, both limited their children’s use of smartphone technology. Bill Gates refused to get a smartphone for his children until they reached the age of 14.

Sadly, I see Christian parents all of the time handing out smartphones to their 12-year old kids in middle school, if not even earlier! It is as though many Christian parents are either being pushed by peer pressure or they are amazingly unaware that by giving such powerful technology to young children, that they are potentially exposing them to forms of addictive behavior, which is already having a negative impact on a whole generation of teenagers. All of this is leading to confusion as to how we can help a growing generation of young people develop the art of discernment, ranging from how a person can wisely consume news and information, to even the most addictive form of all, unfettered and almost endless pornography.

Wow. We are in deep trouble.

 

It is with this backdrop of information overload, addiction, and disinformation that I read this selection from Hannah Anderson’s 2018 book, All That’s Good: Recovering the Lost Art of Discernment. Hannah was writing about what draws her to enjoy murder mystery novels, and these few paragraphs hit me like a bolt of lightning (page 84):

 

You don’t have to be a student of world history or a fan of murder mysteries to understand why truth is so important to discerning goodness–just look at your social media feed. Unlike the compact boundaries of a village, the digital world sprawls, leaving us with a type of informational vertigo. But it’s not simply that we have too much information; it’s that we have too little shared reality. Like the characters in a mystery, we don’t know what is true and what isn’t. We can’t agree on who is an expert and who isn’t. So more often than not, we simply craft our own reality and can’t be bothered with whether we share it with anyone else or not.

The result is a confusing muddle experience of the world. When my “facts” collide with your “facts,” it results in anger, conflict, mistrust, and isolation. Family members blocking and unfriending family members. Perfect strangers yelling and belittling each other. Communities coming apart at the seams– not simply because we can’t agree on what is good and valuable, but because we can’t agree on what is true anymore. And slowly but surely, our separately constructed realities cut us off from each other and lead us to solitude. Surrounded by a mass of people, we feel unloved and misunderstood, for the simple fact that we’ve created millions of worlds with a population of one.

Because shared reality is necessary to a good, flourishing life, Paul begins Philippians 4:8 by calling us to first seek “whatever is true.” The importance of shared reality to a good, flourishing life also explains why the serpent attacked truth from the start and why Jesus links falsehood with murder. “You are of your father the devil,” He says in John 8:44. “He was the murderer from he beginning and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. … He is a liar and the father of lies.” When the serpent lied to the woman about the consequences of disobedience, he, in effect, murdered her, bringing death and isolation upon the human race.

And when we lie to and about each other, we destroy the bonds of community that sustain life, effectively destroying the people in them.

 

That pretty much sums up what I see in American culture these days, and in the evangelical church, in particular. As a side note, a few years ago, I discovered Hannah Anderson, the wife of a pastor in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, and a blogger at SomeTimesALight.com. She came on my radar after being forced to think through the theological issues, regarding the complementarian/egalitarian controversy, that continues to divide evangelical churches today, and Hannah came across to me as someone who thinks deeply theologically about what it means to be male and female, created in the image of God. However, she apparently thinks deeply about other matters, too, in a way that stretches and renews me spiritually.

As I have been reading her All That’s Good, it has helped to remind me just how important is for Christians to be pursuers of truth. Discernment seems to be something lacking in a number of the Christian circles I come across, so All That’s Good has been a great source for thinking through, what it means to know truth, and meditate on how we come to know that truth. Hannah has another great section that explores epistemology, a ten-dollar word for the study of knowledge and opinions. It answers questions like: How do we know what we know?” (page 86). She explains why discernment of what the Holy Spirit is saying to us must be grounded in factual reality:

 

While it’s true that God guides us to truth through His Spirit, it won’t happen apart from the physical reality that He has ordained for us. After all, we don’t have a sensory experience of the world by accident– God made us both spiritual and physical, and we dare not reject either. Because of this truth must be rooted in factual reality. Facts are not the sum total of all that is true, but truth is not a set of privately held beliefs that cannot be tested by other people. The information that we use to come to our decisions and opinions to come under scrutiny. We must not be offended when people ask us to prove them. We must not expect people to accept anyone else’s opinions simple because they claim that they are true.

 

This is especially true in how much of American evangelicalism portrays the Christian faith today, particularly as I look back on 2020. We sadly also have far too many Christian celebrities, who make a name for themselves, through their charisma and winsome personalities, instead of investing in the type of true spiritual discernment that Hannah Anderson is arguing for.

Too many have made claims that the Holy Spirit has given them private revelations, that others are unable to confirm, and that lack a convincing grasp of Scriptural knowledge ( I appreciate legitimate concerns about voter fraud, but I have to ask some questions:  What was that whole crazy “Jericho March” really supposed to be about?….. Eric Metaxas is a very funny and sweet Christian man, but is he claiming to be a prophet, or is he just pulling our leg?…. We are about to find out in less than a month).

Others have unintentionally or even intentionally redefined traditional theological categories to unwittingly make room for anti-Christian ideologies to permeate the church (is critical theory, or “wokeness,” really just a tool to help in recasting Martin Luther King Jr’s biblical vision of a colorblind society, or is it an ideological agenda bent on undercutting classic Christianity with Neo-Marxism propaganda?).

Others have gained the acclaim of their followers, while living lives that lack sufficient accountability (who was asking the tough questions in apologist Ravi Zacharias’ life, particularly when doubts about Ravi began to surface five years ago, if not sooner?). Others have been elevated as leaders, despite lacking the theological foundations and spiritual maturity that should help them to weather the storms of life. The cause of truth suffers as a result.

That can all sound quite depressing. So, it would be best to end on a brighter, and still truthful, note.

Thankfully, there are millions of Christ followers who humbly and quietly follow Jesus, loving God and loving their neighbors, sharing their faith and living out Christ-likeness in very concrete ways, whose stories never show up in our Facebook and Twitter feeds. Godly Christian parents are training up their children to be confident in their faith, with no Pinterest fanfare. Across the world, thousands are coming to know Christ, despite persecution of the faith. For example, in Iran alone, a great spiritual revival is happening there, where Christianity is growing faster there than anywhere else in the world, despite the pandemic. Even in America, the growth of small groups of believers meeting either in person or on Zoom potentially signals a revitalization of American Christianity, during the time of COVID. A mission my wife and I support, International Cooperating Ministries, is on the verge of building their 10,000th church! The accessibility of high-quality, peer-reviewed biblical scholarship to the average Christian is at an all-time high, due to the ease of the Internet. A new crop of young, knowledgeable Christian apologists are having a huge impact in defending the faith on YouTube , for the up and coming generation. Just one example: Aside from Queen Elizabeth’s Christmas message, YouTube apologist Michael Jones’ (a.k.a. Inspiring Philosophy) “The Lost Message of the Bible” was in my mind this years best YouTube Christmas video, encouraging me to dig more into the Bible, and share the Good News of Jesus with others! ….  So, there are still plenty of good reasons to rejoice, even in an era when spiritual discernment more generally seems to be in short supply.

Hannah Anderson goes on in other chapters, exploring more themes derived from Philippians 4:8, “Whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable.” This is not really a super-heady book, but it still helped me to think more deeply about where I am with God, and where the church of Jesus Christ is today. Sprinkled with her own family anecdotes, and wise thinking, this is the best devotional type of writing I read all year.

Just get the book and read it, if you want to see what I mean. It will be like balm to your soul.

Onward to 2021!

 


The Queen’s Christmas Broadcast

This kind of made me have second thoughts, as to why we Americans broke away from the mother country. Though respectful of other faiths, the Queen’s Christian faith shines through clearly. Following this year’s speech, is the first televised Christmas speech she gave in 1957, reading from John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress.

 


The Crucible of Faith, by Philip Jenkins. A Review.

The so-called “inter-testamental” period, that 400-year period between completion of the Old Testament and the beginning of the New Testament, is nothing but a black-box to the majority of evangelical Christians. As the story goes, Malachi, the last book of the Old Testament, was the last of the great Jewish prophets, before John the Baptist appears at the dawn of the New Testament period. Israel was without an inspired prophetic voice during this 400-year void.

The problem with this narrative is that it suggests that nothing of any substantive theological value was happening during that time. Nothing could be further from the truth.

It was during the era of Second-Temple Judaism, after the Temple was rebuilt following the Babylonian exile, when the subsequent invasions by the Greeks, the Seleucids, and the Romans, completely reshaped the world inhabited by the people of the Hebrew Scriptures. Respected Baylor historian, Philip Jenkins, has written a popular-level, sweeping history of the time, Crucible of Faith: The Ancient Revolution That Made Our Modern Religious World, that necessarily fills in the gap. Crucible of Faith makes for a fascinating read, but it can be unsettling at certain points. Jenkins’ work both strikingly illuminates the radical, Judeo-centric and often neglected developments of thought that created the theological culture that Jesus of Nazareth lived in, while inadvertently at times casting a shadow of doubt over the inner workings of progressive revelation in the Bible (if one is not careful).

Jenkins has written widely on topics related to Christian history, including a book that I highly recommend and that I read a few years ago, The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia–and How It Died. Lost History is a fascinating survey of the much ignored churches of the Christian East, extending from the Middle East to Africa and Asia, during the first millennium of Christianity, that once dominated the Christian world, only to be crushed underneath the rise of Islam, and other Christian-opposing elements in Asia.

Jenkins’ more recent book from 2017, on the era just prior to the birth of Jesus, Crucible of Faith, was one of the last books I finished reading in 2020, and it has left me thinking more and more about it. Aside from my review of Tom Holland’s Dominion, this is my most in-depth book review of the year, … and the most challenging to write.

 

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Christmas in Dark Places 2020

Glen Scrivener is an evangelist in the U.K.  In this crazy year of 2020, I needed to hear this Christmas message:


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