Category Archives: Book Reviews

Book Review: ‘I Kid You Not’

‘I Kid You Not’: Notes from 20 Years in the Trenches of the Culture Wars, Lyle Shelton.  Redland Bay, Queensland: Connor Court Publishing, 2020.  Softcover, 273 pages.

I’m told that when you join an army combat unit, you’ll usually get a lesson on that unit’s battle history.  I came to Australia nearly five years ago with little knowledge of the battles that have been waged here for what’s good and true.  Since then, I’ve witnessed the fight for the preservation of marriage and a few other skirmishes.  However, reading Lyle Shelton’s new book opened my eyes to many of the battles that took place before we arrived in 2015.  It’s like reading the battle history of biblically-minded and politically-involved Christians in Australia for the last two decades.

For those who don’t know him, Lyle Shelton may be the most hated man in Australia.  I follow him on Twitter and the abuse his trolls heap on him is ghastly.  While he first started drawing fire as a city councillor in Toowoomba, Queensland, it was really as the Managing Director of the Australian Christian Lobby (ACL) that he became the target of intense animosity.  This book documents two decades of his Christian political activism, battles fought — both those won (a few) and lost (more).

From his time in city government in Toowoomba, we read of the fight against brothels in Queensland in chapter 2.  Chapter 3 describes the battle against pornography in Australia — a fight simply to introduce a mandatory filtering policy.  There are chapters on abortion and euthanasia.  The battle against same-sex “marriage” takes up three chapters.  For me, one of the most interesting sections was the chapter on aboriginal relations.  I took a keen interest in that area when I was serving as a missionary to a First Nations community in Canada, so naturally I wanted to hear Lyle’s take on the Australian situation.  I was impressed with how Lyle applies Christian principles of forgiveness, atonement, and reconciliation.  His balanced approach deserves a hearing.

As mentioned, there’s history in this book of which I was unaware, having come “late to the party.”  For example chapter 6 describes Guy Barnett’s move to defund second trimester and late-term abortion.  Today, Guy is a well-known figure in Tasmanian state politics.  But in 2008, he was serving in the Australian senate.  He made an effort to roll back some of the gruesome practices of Australian abortionists.  The ACL supported his effort and, as part of that, invited Gianna Jensen, a survivor of a late-term abortion to come to Australia to assist the campaign.  I’ll let Lyle pick up the story:

She is probably the only person alive today whose birth certificate was signed by her abortionist.  He arrived back on the scene when it was too late.

Gianna indefatigably limped alongside me through kilometers of corridors in Parliament House — her bright and sunny disposition disarming the pollies before she unleashed her killer opening line (pun intended).  [the opening line:  “If abortion is about women’s rights, where were mine?”]

I’ll never forget the afternoon we ran into the then Greens leader Bob Brown in the Senate corridors.  I hadn’t bothered seeking an appointment with him.  The Greens care about saving tiny critters but, perversely, baby humans at risk of violence in the womb are not on their endangered list.

“This is Gianna Jensen from America, Senator,” I awkwardly said as we bumped into Brown.  At that moment, I had no agenda apart from being polite.  Brown, who is one of the most genuinely charming men you will ever meet immediately engaged Gianna in some good-natured banter about her need to see the sights of his home state, Tasmania.

My mind began racing as the Senator continued with small talk.  I felt I had to say something.

“Gianna is a survivor of abortion,” I blurted.  At that Senator Brown excused himself, turned on his heel, and walked off down the corridor.  Some truths are more inconvenient than others.  I’ll never forget it.  It was one of the most profound interactions I had at Parliament in my 10 years as a lobbyist.  I’ll always be grateful to Gianna for coming to our nation and telling her inconvenient story, even though her plea on behalf of unborn babies was politely ignored by our politicians.  (page 108)

An unforgettable afternoon, indeed — one prays it was unforgettable for Bob Brown too.

‘I Kid You Not’ is a must-read for newcomers to Australian politics — it’s a great primer on how we got where we are.  I’d also recommend it to Christian young people and others who are beginning to understand our need to be involved in the struggle for truth and goodness in the public square.  Lyle Shelton not only provides the battle history, he also has some insights into battlefield tactics — those used against the truth, but also those that should be used for the truth.  I would say that, unlike Lyle, and more like the current ACL director Martyn Iles, I believe we need to bring Scripture to bear on the situation.  That point notwithstanding, this book makes a valuable contribution to reflecting on how to be engaged politically as Christians. If we love our nation, if our desire is to see the nation flourish, then this is a battle to which all Christians are called.  Sign up.


Book Review: Becoming a Welcoming Church

Becoming a Welcoming Church, Thom S. Rainer.  Nashville: B & H Publishing Group, 2018.  Hardcover, 101 pages.

Come with me for a moment to visit two Reformed churches.  Both of them are faithful churches in the sense that they have gospel-preaching, faithful administration of the sacraments, and church discipline.  But we’re going to have vastly different experiences at each one.

I’m the guest-preacher at the first church.  After the service is over, I stand for a few moments at the back of the building.  All the members gather into their holy huddles.  No one speaks to me.  After a few moments of standing there awkwardly, I get in my vehicle and just drive away.  If that’s how they treat a guest-preacher, I wonder how they would treat a complete stranger?

With my wife and children, I’m a visitor at the second church.  I’m on vacation.  No one at this church knows me from Adam.  As we arrive, someone warmly greets us and shows us in to the sanctuary.  During the service, one of our children acts up (pastors’ kids!) and afterwards we’re in no mood to stick around.  We make a bee-line for the door.  As we’re out in the parking lot sheepishly heading for our van, someone comes running out after us.  A friendly voice beckons, “Hey, please stay with us for coffee so we can get to know you!  We’d love to have you come back in.”  We apologize and explain the situation with our kids.  But it leaves an impression…a good impression that we’ve never forgotten.

If you were a complete stranger in Jerusalem, to which church would you want to return?

That’s what this book is all about.  It’s about becoming that church which puts its best foot forward before, during and after that moment when guests walk through the door.  Thom Rainer is an experienced consultant and researcher in this field.  He’s written numerous books in the same vein, explaining how churches can do better at engaging guests.

I know what some readers may be thinking.  You may be thinking that this is all about becoming “seeker-friendly” or overhauling everything in our worship services just to accommodate non-members.  Definitely not!  Rainer discusses little about what goes on in worship itself.  In fact, the only thing he really mentions is a practice that most Reformed churches don’t do anyway:  the stand up and greet your neighbour moment.  Instead, this book is first of all about addressing our attitudes and then, second, about everything that goes before and around the worship service:  the website, church signage, greeters, etc.

What I appreciated most about this slim volume is its emphasis on how being a welcoming church is related to the gospel.  The hospitality mandated by Scripture is our thankful and loving response to the gospel.  But also when we are welcoming, it serves the cause of the gospel.

Since so much of it pertains to decisions made by those in leadership, this would be a great little book for consistories to discuss.  As Rainer points out, many churches believe themselves to be more welcoming than they really are.  This book will help churches to get to the truth — it includes two resources in the back which also serve that end:  a Church Facility Audit and a Secret Guest Survey.  Once you get to the truth, you’ll also find some help here in how to improve.  It’s jut a small book, but it punches far above its weight.  Check it out.


Book Review: The Gathering Storm

The Gathering Storm: Secularism, Culture, and the Church, R. Albert Mohler Jr..  Nashville: Nelson Books, 2020.  Hardcover, 223 pages.

Albert Mohler has a well-deserved reputation as one of Christianity’s best culture critics.  He has a daily radio program (The Briefing) with thoughtful worldview analysis.  His blog (AlbertMohler.com) is on my must-read list.  When Mohler speaks or writes on a topic, you can be sure of two things:  1) he’ll be starting with the Bible as his foundation and 2) he’ll be aiming for the glory of God through the advance of the gospel.

He does it in this book on our contemporary cultural challenges too.  Here he’s addressing the overarching problem of secularism.  At the outset, I should say he’s writing as an American for an American audience.  I read it as an ex-pat Canadian living in Australia.  Some of the material in the book may seem irrelevant to people like me — the Appendix, for example, deals with the American Supreme Court and the role it plays in political decision-making.  You may have to stop and think about how that transfers to the Canadian or Australian situation (I think it does).  That said, Mohler does pay attention to developments elsewhere in the world.  He writes about situations in British Columbia, Alberta, France, and elsewhere.

The book contains both description and analysis.  If anyone has been paying attention, a lot of the descriptive material is going to be familiar.  He describes how secularism is a threatening storm in regard to civilization, the church, human life, marriage, family, and gender/sexuality.  Mohler’s analysis of these trends is where I found the real money for value in this book.

Let me share a few points of appreciation that might whet your appetite.

Already in the Introduction, Mohler explains that secular doesn’t mean “irreligious” or “non-religious.”  It means “that Christianity, which forged the moral and spiritual worldview of Western civilization, is being displaced.”  In the first chapter, he elaborates:

Secular, in terms of contemporary sociological and intellectual conversation, refers to the absence of any binding theistic authority or belief.  It is both an ideology, which is known as secularism, and a consequence, which is known as secularization.  The latter is not an ideology; it is a concept and a sociological process whereby societies become less theistic, and in our context that means less Christian in general outlook. (pp.4-5)

Elsewhere in the book he illustrates how secularism and secularization have religious and theological values.

The second chapter is entitled “The Gathering Storm in the Church.”  Mohler notes how the prophets of theological liberalism predicted that churches would need to adapt to the culture in order to survive.  He quotes a Baptist minister and lawyer, Oliver Thomas:  “Churches will continue hemorrhaging members until we face the truth:  being a faithful Christian does not mean accepting everything the Bible teaches” (p.30).  However, the truth is quite the opposite:  “it was actually liberal theology that lead to the evacuation of these churches” (p.19).  Mohler doesn’t discuss this, but I’d note that we heard the same canard from the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands about women in office.  Some from the RCN argued that the church can’t survive and grow while restricting the special offices of the church to men.  I wonder how that’s going for them.  If you look at the Christian Reformed Church in North America, after their decision to allow women in office in 1992, they’ve been on a steady downward trend in membership.  Adapting to the culture is not a recipe for growth.

That same chapter also issues a cry for the need for creeds and confessions.  Says Mohler, “Churches and denominations that have no confession of faith, or have a confession in name only, disarm themselves doctrinally” (p.36).  Quite right!  Historic Christian confessions which faithfully summarize the Bible are indispensable for keeping our doctrinal heads screwed on straight as the storm of secularism starts blowing in.

The chapter on gender and sexuality discusses the infamous Revoice Conference of 2018.  This conference was held to support, encourage and empower “gay, lesbian, same sex-attracted, and other LGBT Christians so they can flourish while observing the historic Christian doctrine of marriage and sexuality.”  This illustrates “the revolution’s demand on the church of Jesus Christ.”  One thing Mohler doesn’t mention is the fact that this conference was hosted by a congregation of the Presbyterian Church in America.  In fact, the epicentre of the Revoice controversy has been in the PCA and how the church and its courts respond to it.

One of the troubling things about the Revoice Conference was the idea that a Christian can identify himself/herself in terms of being gay or lesbian, etc.  In other words, you can be a “gay Christian.”  Mohler dissents.  The most significant problem “is the idea that any believer can claim identity with a pattern of sexual attraction that is itself sinful” (p.108).  Some associated with Revoice argue that the attraction itself is not sinful.  Mohler’s response to this is worth a careful read:

The issues here are bigger than sexuality.  As Denny Burk and Rosaria Butterfield rightly explain, we confront here a basic evangelical disagreement with Roman Catholicism.  Ever since the Council of Trent (1545-1563), the Roman Catholic Church has insisted that involuntary incentive to sin is not itself sin.  In the most amazing sentence, the Council of Trent declared: “This concupiscence, which the apostle sometimes calls sin, the holy Synod declares that the Catholic Church has never understood it to be called sin.”  Don’t miss the acknowledgement that the doctrine of Trent is contrary to the language of the apostle.  (p.109)

That was new to me; both the connection to Roman Catholicism, and how explicitly the Council of Trent repudiated biblical teaching on this point.

Finally, Mohler has a great chapter on the challenges facing our young people.  Again, the description is good, but the analysis is better.  But best of all is the way Mohler lays out a way to “apply the gospel power in order to engage the storm gathering over the coming generations.”  He argues that Christian parents have to lay hold of three things:

  1. Because it’s where the gospel is preached, church has to be the utmost and highest priority for Christian families.
  2. Christian parents need to both understand the challenge of technology, screen time, and social media and rise to meet that challenge.
  3. Christian parents have to disciple their children through family worship and quality family time.  (pp.140-141)

If I could add one item to this list:  recognizing the need for and value of Christian education.  After all, public education is one of the primary ways secularism seeks to indoctrinate our children.

I first became aware of The Gathering Storm through its promotion online through Mohler’s blog and other sources.  However, what really led me to buy it and read it was a friend and colleague from Canada who was doing a course for Christian school teachers on the biblical worldview and contemporary challenges to it.  I’d say that it is a must-read for Christian educators.  But no less so for parents and far more so for office bearers in Christ’s church.  I do wonder whether the storm is still gathering or whether it is upon us.  Whatever the case may be, none of us can be doing the ostrich thing.  We need to see what’s going on and then also realize that if we’re truly Christians, we have the solid foundation under our feet to weather it — and even see the gospel advance despite it.

 

 

 


Book Review: Understanding Scientific Theories of Origins (Part 1)

Creation Without Compromise

Understanding Scientific Theories of Origins: Cosmology, Geology, and Biology in Christian Perspective, Robert C. Bishop, Larry L. Funck, Raymond J. Lewis, Stephen O. Mosher, John H. Walton.  Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2018.  Hardcover, 659 pages.

This massive volume attempts to make a theological and scientific case for theistic evolution.  It might be appropriate to describe it as the theistic evolution “Bible.”  All the authors are Wheaton College faculty and the material in the book is drawn from a Wheaton general-education science course, SCI 311 Theories of Origins.  Of the five authors, only one (John Walton) is a theologian; the others are scientists.

I am not a scientist and therefore not really qualified to interact meaningfully with many of the scientific claims made in Understanding Scientific Theories of Origins (USTO).  I am going to limit myself to evaluating and interacting with the biblical and theological claims.  While reading, I did…

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Book Review: Know Why You Believe

Know Why You Believe, K. Scott Oliphint.  Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2017.  Softcover, 221 pages.

There’s a need for different types of books on apologetics.  We need the books on theory – and there are plenty of them.  Several efforts have been made over the years to write books specifically addressed to unbelieving skeptics.  However, so far as I’m aware, there haven’t been too many books written for believers at a popular level.  I’m talking about the kind of book you could give to your teenage son or daughter when they start asking hard questions about the Christian faith.  This is that book.

As a professor of apologetics at Westminster Theological Seminary, Dr. Scott Oliphint is well-qualified to write this kind of work.  He has a great grasp of the background philosophical and theological issues – and this is evident in his more scholarly apologetics books.  Yet he also has a track record of accessible writing for popular audiences – for example, some years ago I reviewed his great series of biblical studies entitled The Battle Belongs to the Lord: The Power of Scripture for Defending Our Faith.  He’s done it again.  Except for a couple of more technical sections, most of Know Why You Believe should be comprehensible to the average reader from young adults upwards.

The book launches with this profound quote from C.S. Lewis at his best:  “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”  That really sets the tone for everything following.  One of the reasons I really love this book and can highly recommend it is because it takes God’s Word seriously.  It takes Psalm 36:9 seriously:  “For with you is the fountain of life; in your light do we see light.”  God’s light especially shines forth in his Word.  If you want to see clearly, you need to see things God’s way.  This is also true when it comes to the reasons for believing the Christian faith.  The best and most trustworthy reasons come from God himself – the faithful God who never lies.  That’s the basic approach undergirding Know Why You Believe – a biblical, Reformed approach to apologetics.

Oliphint covers 10 questions we might struggle with:

  • Why believe in the Bible?
  • Why believe in God?
  • Why believe in Jesus?
  • Why believe in miracles?
  • Why believe Jesus rose from the dead?
  • Why believe in salvation?
  • Why believe in life after death?
  • Why believe in God in the face of modern science?
  • Why believe in God despite the evil in the world?
  • Why believe in Christianity alone?

Each chapter deals with one of these questions.  It explains the reasons and then also addresses responses or objections that might arise.  There are also “Questions for Reflection” and recommended readings with every chapter.

Just touching on one chapter, the second last deals with the problem of evil.  It describes the problem and then explores two ways in which Christians have tried to address it, albeit unsatisfactorily.  Instead, Oliphint attempts to offer biblical reasons as to how evil can co-exist with a good God.  He points out that God has recognized the problem of evil from before creation.  Furthermore, God created human beings in his image as responsible agents.  When Adam and Eve fell, God rightly judged their sin.  The real blame for evil is on them, not God.  He then points out how God himself has dealt with, is dealing with, and will deal with the problem of evil through his Son Jesus Christ.  This is a good explanation, but Oliphint might have said more.  For instance, he could have added that because God is good, he must have a morally good reason for allowing whatever evil there is to exist.

Not every Christian ponders the deeper questions of why we believe what we do.  But if you or someone you know does, this will be a great read.  It would also make a great gift for consistories to give to young people who make public profession of faith.