At the end of each year, I like to take some time looking back over some of best things I have learned, mainly from books (and podcasts), with a wrap-up of some of the biggest stories hitting the Christian world. But before I do that, I would like to report on the most bittersweet moment this past year.
It was the loss of our Italian greyhound, Digby. He was a rescue dog that we adopted, near the time when I learned that my mother was dying of cancer, back starting in 2014. He had been pulled out of a burning house, engulfed by a fire, and he needed a home. Friends who were traveling through Indiana picked him up for us, that we might give him a “forever home”. This sweet little guy gave my wife and I much joy for seven years.
He was in many ways a much better dog than Dooty, another Italian greyhound, whom we lost in 2013. In September, 2020, our newest “family member” was sadly diagnosed with chronic kidney failure. Dogs typically do not recover from this disease, but with certain types of medical treatment, they can live months, or even years after the initial diagnosis, with a good quality of life. Fourteen months later, though, in early November, it became apparent that the condition of this Italian greyhound was rapidly deteriorating. What made his death so much the more difficult was his genuinely sweet disposition to the very end. I marvel at the glory of God that was on full display by this creature.
We will miss this little guy. Hopefully, we will meet someone just like Digby in the New Heavens and New Earth (The first two following pics were from late 2020. The third was from September, 2021. The last one was from November, 2021).
Speaking of bittersweet, here is a remarkable story of forgiveness, displaying the power of the Gospel. A Christian friend of mine, Debbie Smith, was sexually attacked in 1989, when a man entered her home and dragged her into the woods. He was eventually caught and convicted, after DNA evidence provided a positive match for the suspect. Earlier this year, Debbie spent five hours visiting this man, still in prison, where she told him that she had forgiven him.
Here is my wrap-up for 2021….
This will really show my age here, but just few weeks ago I learned that Michael Nesmith, the lead guitar player and primary songwriter for the 1960’s television pop-group, the Monkees, died at age 78. As a kid, I watched re-runs of that show, and I was drawn to Nesmith’s character, always wearing a wool hat, and who came across as the most pensive member of the band…. Just one little interesting factoid about Nesmith I recently learned: His mother invented Liquid Paper, the typewriter correction fluid, in 1954, as a divorced single mother, trying to raise her son Michael …. Here is one of Nesmith’s musical creations, that he introduces in this silly video for the television show, “You Just May Be The One.” Mickey Dolenz, the drummer, is the only surviving member of the band:
Onto some things of a more serious nature….
On the bright side, in the midst of disaster, it is really encouraging to see how Christians are working together to help the folks impacted by tornadoes in Kentucky, back in early December…. My wife and I visited family over this Christmas near where the worst tornado, which reached up to EF-4 strength, devastated the towns of Dawson Springs and Mayfield, Kentucky. You could see the damaged inflicted along the path the tornado took crossing Interstate 69 in several places. It made me appreciate the power of nature to inflict terrible damage, and impact many lives, as we could see debris for miles scattered over rural Kentucky…..
On the more problematic side of the church…..
One of the most significant developments that I have been seeing in the American church is the development of what might best be called “progressive Christianity,” as a contrast to “historically orthodox Christianity.” A generation or so ago, this distinction was primarily seen as the difference between “mainline Protestant Christianity” and “evangelicalism.” But with the looming collapse of the Protestant mainline, and the emergence of other churches that do not fit the older Protestant mainline mold, the category of “progressive Christianity” seems like a much more appropriate designation. Unlike in previous generations, when so-called “liberal Christians” went to “mainline churches” (with a few conservatives mixed in, here and there), and “conservative Christians” went to “conservative evangelical” churches, many churches today are a blended mix of everything, that defies easy boundary markers.
We are now living in an age where the specific boundary between “progressive Christianity” and “historically orthodox Christianity” (certainly of the Protestant sort) can become slippery and elusive. On the one side, some doctrinal controversies can cause unnecessary division, and harm the unity of Christ’s body. Yet at the same time, the category of “disputable matters” can also become so broadly and loosely defined that the concept of knowable, absolute Christian truth becomes a meaningless enterprise. Some differences in belief and practice are simply stark and distinctive, and difficult to ignore. The following video dialogue between Sean McDowell (historically orthodox Christian) and Colby Martin (progressive Christian) provides an informative illustration as to what this chasm in the church looks like:
Speaking of controversy 😦 ….. When COVID started to emerge in the U.S., a little under two years ago, I first thought that this crisis might be the spark that would lead to a spiritual revival. Having people crammed up in their homes for weeks on end might encourage a massive wave of interest in spiritual things. But such was not the case. In fact, things have pretty much devolved into an unparalleled amount division in the culture… and 2021 was pretty much the wearisome ballooning of the same craziness that engulfed people in 2020!!
So much of this spirit of division is driven by the flood of post-modernism throughout the Western world. The shady world of fake news and deepfake technology has not helped matters, that is for sure (listen to this Holy Post podcast, if you are unsure what “fake news” and “deepfake technology” is)….. and our American educational system has pretty much robbed a whole generation of a vibrant appreciation of history, a situation that we have managed to export to places outside of the U.S., like the U.K, according to historian and The Rest is History podcaster, Dominic Sandbrook.
This state of affairs is pretty depressing, but there are signs of change in the air. Positive change. Even a gay atheist, like the venerable British historian, David Starkey, who last year ran afoul of the U.K.’s extreme “social justice warrior” movement and virtue-signaling “woke” crowd, laments our culture’s failure to pursue truth. What if every Christian possessed this type of desire to pursue truth?
Sadly, this depressing state of affairs permeates the church as well. Consider the case of Eric Metaxas. A few years ago, despite some earlier misgivings about some of his writings, I imagined that Eric was becoming the type of evangelical public intellectual who could soundly speak for the conservative evangelical movement as a whole. After reading his book on Dietrich Bonhoeffer, I was pretty excited about Eric Metaxas’ prospects as a popular-style, evangelical public intellectual. I was very hopeful about Eric, and here on Veracity I have linked to perhaps a good half dozen episodes of his talk show from YouTube (which have all since mysteriously vanished)…
…. and then 2020 came. … Eric appeared to go off the deep end, uncritically embracing various conspiracy theories (as it would appear). WORLD News Group did an interview with Eric Metaxas in November, 2021, primarily regarding a new book authored by Metaxas, but also to ask the question that keeps popping up in my mind, “Whatever happened to Eric Metaxas?” Give it a listen and make up your own mind.
Speaking of WORLD News Group, that sponsors the daily news podcast, The World and Everything In It, that my wife enjoys listening to daily, a shakeup there has everyone scratching their heads. WORLD has historically been on the more conservative side of conservative evangelicalism, under the editorial leadership of Marvin Olasky. I have had issues with some of WORLD’s reporting over the years, but I have also been grateful for WORLD taking controversial stands, in exposing various scandals inside the evangelical world, and Marvin Olasky was largely responsible for that type of journalism. Now, however, Olasky has announced his resignation from WORLD magazine, since a decision at WORLD was made to take editorial control of the magazine away from Olasky.
Olasky has his concerns about the future of Christian journalism: “The trend in journalism these days is to emphasize opinion, not reporting. Reporting is costly; opining is relatively cheap. It can lead to more ‘reader engagement’ in terms of clicks, likes, shares—and subscriptions. Challenging readers or donors can be costly: Supporting proclivities and prejudices is better at cementing loyalty. These days it makes a certain kind of economic and political sense to abandon Biblical objectivity and become known as a liberal or conservative organ.” For someone who is such a resolute conservative evangelical to make such a statement does not bode well for the state of the church.
I am continually being challenged to learn How to Have Impossible Conversations in a digital world where the social media algorithms steer us all into ideological corners, on both the right and the left, and thus facilitating outrage fatigue. Thoughtful, intelligent nonbelievers employ such conservational strategies, to avoid nonsense, but Christians would do well to do the same. Probably the best summary of this problem, from a pastor’s point of view, comes from this interview of pastor Matt Chandler by theologian Preston Sprinkle:
To get a feel for how difficult the situation is, just recently in December, 2021, the Pew Research Forum released an updated report chronicling the rise of the “Nones,” those who say that they no longer have a religious affiliation. In 2007, the survey indicated that the “Nones” made up 16% of the American population, rising to 26% by 2019. Now, just a few years later, we are at 29% for the “Nones.” That is almost 1 out of 3 Americans (about 3 out of 10, to be more exact), whereas this was just at 1 out of 6 Americans (about 3 out of 20), a little more than a decade ago.
On the whole, American Christianity does not seem to know what to do about this situation….
Now onto better things….
Before I hit the book review summaries, I like to put another plug in before the end of 2021 for the Cambridge House at the College of William & Mary. I am super-excited about what is going on there!!.This is a great effort to try to put a dent into the growing “Nones” trend, on just one local college campus, here in the United States.
Now, this is perhaps the most exhilarating story of the year… just in time for Christmas. The group of conservative Anabaptist missionaries that were held captive by gang members in Haiti for weeks made a daring escape away from their captors. Wow!! (One of the captive missionaries gives a one-hour testimony of his experience).
Some Book Reviews…..
If there is one thing I appreciate about bike commuting is the ability to listen to audiobooks (and podcasts) while I ride. Not only am I trying to get my body in shape, I am working on getting my mind (and hopefully, my heart) in shape as well. As we are s-l-o-w-l-y emerging out of the COVID pandemic, I have been able to sneak in some great listens during 2021.
First, let me say that I am trying to stay off the 24-hour news cycle, that I believe has been a detriment to the spiritual health of millions of people. We live in an age where evidence-based reasoning takes a backseat to whoever successfully can take advantage of the attention-getting algorithms propagated by social media networks like Facebook. I am thankful for a site like Ground News that takes the current headlines, and simply summarizes the stories, and organizes the reporting media based on an organization’s ideological bias. Another site, AllSides.com, does pretty much the same thing. Websites like these help to quickly cut through all of the garbage.
I want to next list off a few of my favorite podcasts. When it comes to Bible study, nothing else beats Dr. Michael Heiser’s Naked Bible Podcast. This is some of the best Bible teaching out there today, a combination of verse-by-verse exposition, apologetics, and an appreciation of current biblical scholarship, all wrapped up into one. If you think studying the Bible might be “boring,” then the Naked Bible Podcast is your antidote.
Preston Sprinkle has a wide variety of fantastic interviews on his Theology in the Raw podcast. Beyond theological topics, focusing on history, I have become a follower of The Rest is History, by British historians Tom Holland and Dominic Sandbrook, which is a lot of fun, as well as being educational. Premier Christian Radio’s C.S. Lewis podcast is a wonderful introduction to the great Oxford Don, Christian apologist, and children’s book author, featuring interviews with scientist/theologian Alister McGrath. Plus, if you have ever wondered what the whole Old Testament Apocrypha was all about, you should try the Bad Books of the Bible podcast, put out by Ancient Faith Radio.
Then there is a whole slew of YouTube channels, such as Sean McDowell’s channel, for great apologetics content; Gavin Ortlund’s Truth Unites, for an evangelical Protestant engagement with Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, and Matt Whitman’s Ten Minute Bible Hour, a Baptist look at the richness of different Christian traditions.
But hands-down, the most provocative podcast I have listened to this year has been Christianity Today’s The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill…. It is eye-opening, intense, soul-searching, spiritually challenging, and controversial, all at the same time…. In the wake of Ravi Zacharias scandals, The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill gave me a lot to think about how Christians have not handled celebrity pastor Christianity that well…..After just finishing listening to the whole series, with my small-letter “c” complementarianism in view, I confess that I am still drawn to the power, penetration, and conviction of Mark Driscoll’s message. But it is quite clear that Pastor Mark’s theological vision got hijacked by a type of control-freakish machismo that ultimately took down Mars Hill Church from the inside.
It would appear that the greatest threat to Christianity lies not in the surrounding culture, but right in the backyard of the church.
Who needs television and the 24-hour news cycle when you’ve got stuff like this to listen to?
But now for the books….
- The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, by Carl Trueman. This was DEFINITELY the most important and timely book I read all year. If you want to understand “LGBTQ” at the most profound philosophical level, and the nature of today’s culture war, look no further. However, this volume has lots of footnotes, so for those who are intimidated by that, you should wait for a new, slimmer volume, with a different title coming out in early 2022, Strange New World: How Thinkers and Activists Redefined Identity and Sparked the Sexual Revolution, that will be easier to read. My only complaint is that Trueman does not address pastoral care issues. See Preston Sprinkle’s Embodied (mentioned below) for that type of material. If you want an excellent audiobook experience, listen to Trueman read his own book, featuring his wonderful English accent. Review here at Veracity.
- The Unseen Realm, by Michael Heiser. Trueman’s book only beat this Heiser book, because of the timeliness. But Michael Heiser’s research into the supernatural world of the Bible has completely shifted the way I read the Bible. The Unseen Realm, and its less-academic version, Supernatural, are destined to become classics in Biblical studies, revolutionizing how to approach the Bible as a whole, shaped by the historical context of Second Temple Judaism. I hope to be writing a lot about Dr. Heiser’s work in future blog posts. This has motivated me to dig into the Scriptures, with greater enthusiasm, than anything else I have read in the past 5 or 6 years. In my view, if we are praying for revival in the church, that might explode into a new “Great Awakening” in our culture, I believe it will start by grappling with some of the ideas and thoughts found Dr. Heiser’s books. Review here at Veracity.
- Embodied, by Preston Sprinkle. This is the “go-to” book I would recommend to understand the crisis of gender identity overtaking the culture today, and its impact on the church, based on solid scientific research and biblical wisdom. However, unlike Trueman’s The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, Sprinkle’s Embodied is more focused on how to care for people wrestling with these deeply personal issues, instead dealing with the culture war questions. Embodied was also a very important personal book for me, too. Review here at Veracity.
- The Two Popes, by Anthony McCarten. A provocative look at the relationship between the current pope, Francis, and the previous pope, Benedict. It is a great movie, too. Review here at Veracity.
- Welcoming Justice, by Charles Marsh and John Perkins. A short but helpful book that sidesteps around the unhelpful categories of critical race theory and “wokeness” to get at the real story of how the church can effectively combat racism. Review here at Veracity.
- The Bible With and Without Jesus, by Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler. Two Jewish scholars help both Christians and Jews understand why both groups read the Bible, and particularly, the New Testament, so differently. Review here at Veracity.
- Finding the Right Hills to Die On, by Gavin Ortlund. When theological controversial erupts in your small group or church, Ortlund’s book is great resource to try to frame what is important and unimportant regarding how to navigate theological controversy. I found this book immensely helpful in trying to navigate a theological debate that has been tearing at my home church, for the past couple of years, and its impact on personal relationships. Review here at Veracity.
- Positively Irritating, by Jon Ritner. One of my former pastors has written an excellent book on how to “do church” in a post-Christian context. Jon’s book kept me thinking for weeks!! This was probably my longest book review I wrote this year, critically engaging with its content. It has changed my thinking about the “megachurch” movement.
- The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth, by Beth Allison Barr. An otherwise brilliant and illuminating study of the history of women in the church, making an important case for affirming the gifts of women in the life of the church, nevertheless comes up short when it comes to offering a cogent, exegetically compelling interpretation of the Bible concerning women in church leadership. To use a manner of speaking going back to J. I. Packer, Beth Allison Barr’s efforts are well-meaning, positively enlightening, challengingly corrective on certain matters… and yet still “wrong-headed” at certain crucial points. Review here at Veracity.
- Judaism Before Jesus, by Anthony Tomasino. The best book that I have read that gives you an historical introduction to the “Time Between the Testaments,” between the Old and New Testament, otherwise known as the period of “Second Temple Judaism.” Review here at Veracity.
- Paul Among the People, by Sarah Ruden. A classicist scholar examines the writings of the Apostle Paul, and surprisingly concludes that Paul is not the “bad guy” that so many skeptics, and even liberal-minded Christians, think he is. Review here at Veracity.
- Still Time to Care, by Greg Johnson. A history of the “Ex-Gay” movement, with a positive challenge for Christians to return to an ethic of care for those who experience unwanted sexual attractions, as opposed to an ethic of cure. Review here at Veracity.
- To Think Christianly: A History of the L’Abri, Regent College, and the Christian Study Center Movement, by Charles Cotherman. An insightful history into the concept of a “Christian Study Center,” from Francis Schaeffer, to James Houston, to R.C. Sproul, and even to anticipating the new Cambridge House, near the College of William and Mary. Review here at Veracity.
- Founding Brothers, by Joseph Ellis. A history of some significant moments in the lives of America’s Founding Fathers, and their relationships with one another. Review here at Veracity.
- A Parent’s Guide to Smartphones (Axis Parent’s Guide). David C. Cook publishers has been putting a great little series of books, aimed at Christian parents, to help them raise their kids. Each book is short, and can be read in perhaps under an hour. I picked up one these via Kindle, A Parent’s Guide to Smartphones, and the material was brief, but entirely helpful. Other books in the series address topics ranging from “Internet Filtering & Monitoring”, to “Vaping”, to the television show “Stranger Things.” If you know of a parent who is swamped with the pressures of raising children in a digital age, books in this series would be a great gift for them.
- Urban Legends of the Church History, Urban Legends of the Old Testament, and Urban Legends of the New Testament, respectively by John Adair and Svigel, by David A. Croteau and Gary Yates, and by David A. Croteau. These three books in the “Urban Legends” series, published by B&H Academic, do a great job dispelling a lot of the common “fake news” stories surrounding church history and the Bible. Hopefully, this book series will encourage the death of at least some of these fictions that afflict the church. Review here at Veracity.
- Unbelievers: An Emotional History of Doubt, by Alec Ryrie. An historical study in how believers wrestle with doubt. For a “second guesser” like myself, Ryrie’s book has been exceedingly helpful on a personal level. Review here at Veracity.
- The Legacy Standard Bible. As of December, 2021, the finishing touches have just been put on a new Bible translation (more background here), that has a good deal of momentum behind it, in some circles. The New American Standard Bible has been a favorite of many for decades, along with its cousin, The Amplified Bible, as developed by the Lockman Foundation (These translations are fine translations, but I tend to lean more towards the English Standard Version myself). Pastor John MacArthur, and the faculty at The Master’s Seminary, in Southern California, have taken the 1995 edition of the New American Standard Bible, and have modified it in a way that they hope will emphasize a very traditional outlook on English Bible translation. I have not read through the whole Legacy Standard version (available online), but looking at it so far, the LSB is for those who find themselves frustrated with all of the newer Bible translations. YouTuber Timothy Frisch has a helpful video describing the Legacy Standard, in more detail.
I have already started on Allen Guelzo’s new biography of Robert E. Lee, and the first chapter or so is simply fantastic. I am looking forward to more good listens on my bicycle commutes in 2022!
For other reflections on the year 2021, see my post from the end of the summer. Ah, now we await a new year, in 2022! Let us pray that God does a work in the hearts of his people for the sake of the Gospel!!
Before I sign off for 2021, why not another fun tribute to the Monkees, this time with Colt Clark and the Quarantine Kids playing “I’m a Believer”…. and to top it all off, here is the Queen of the United Kingdom, Elizabeth II, with her Christmas greeting. She is like the world’s grandmother.