Review: Great to Good: How Following Jesus Reshapes our Ambitions

Great to Good: How Following Jesus Reshapes our Ambitions

By Jae Hoon Lee (IVP)

Jim Collins’ book Good to Great has influenced business culture considerably. It also has influenced the church. Jae Hoon Lee seeks to correct Collins’ influence on the church by reminding us Jesus and Scripture call us to be good, not great.

In the vein of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Cost of Discipleship—except without the single Scripture passage as the framework—or Thomas à Kempis’ Imitation of Christ, Lee offers 50 devotions divided into five parts. Devotions range in length from two to five pages.

Those who have read Watchman Nee, a Christian teacher and church leader in China during the 20th century, will notice a similarity—an East Asian view of Christianity. Lee is pastor of Onnuri Church in Seoul, South Korea, and wrote from the perspective of the church there. Onnuri, meaning “All Nations,” has sent more than 870 missionaries to more than 70 countries.

Lee’s thoughts are challenging. For one, the phrasing of the English translation conveys the feel of a Korean perspective on theology and Scripture. This is not a criticism. Rather, it’s an important reason to read Great to Good. English readers familiar with devotional writing will need to pay more attention, read slower or re-read sections.

Lee’s thoughts are also personally and spiritually challenging. He drives the reader into thorough self-examination, but in a much more succinct fashion than the 19th-century Danish philosopher-theologian Søren Kierkegaard. Here again is a reason to read Great to Good, because English readers are familiar with European and North American devotional literature. Not so much Christian writing from East Asia. But we should be.

Great to Good is expected to release July 23. It has the potential to influence followers of Christ as much as Bonhoeffer, à Kempis, Nee and Kierkegaard.

Eric Black, executive director/publisher/editor
Baptist Standard

Review: Ownership: The Evangelical Legacy of Slavery in Edwards, Wesley, and Whitefield

Ownership: The Evangelical Legacy of Slavery in Edwards, Wesley, and Whitefield

By Sean McGever (IVP)

We like our heroes perfect, especially our religious heroes. But since they can’t be perfect, we tend to ignore, discount or excuse their imperfections. Sean McGever reminds us our heroes are whole people and must be taken as such—even and especially our religious heroes.

Jonathan Edwards, John Wesley and George Whitefield are not heroes to all of us. Nevertheless, their preaching, teaching and theology have influenced all of us to a greater or lesser degree. They also influenced each other—a fact shown in McGever’s history.

Despite their differences, Edwards, Wesley and Whitefield held at least one thing in common, besides being contemporaries. They each accepted the institution of slavery, however much they objected to the slave trade—another fact McGever makes clear throughout Ownership.

Their acceptance of slavery extended to Edwards and Whitefield owning slaves themselves. All three men benefitted directly from slavery. Furthermore, their acceptance of slavery was based on the Bible. Any qualms they had with how slavery was practiced in their time was its departure from how Paul and others in Scripture instructed masters to treat their slaves.

McGever points out the two slaveholders lived in the American colonies, while the one who did not own slaves lived in England. That one, Wesley, also outlived the other two, a detail that matters considerably, since it was during his latter years when the tide turned toward abolition of slavery.

As Wesley’s views on slavery changed, secular sources provided more support for his argument than did the Bible, with the exception of the Golden Rule—do to others as you would have them do to you.

When so many decry historical accounts related to race and slavery as “woke” and revisionist, McGever’s history is fair and balanced. He relays the facts without making value judgments of the men. In so doing, he fleshes out a period of church history often atomized.

McGever makes his most powerful point in the final chapter when he challenges us to own our own histories, actions and legacies. The tendency today, as noted above, is to criticize our forebears—yes, our forebears—without facing the fact we are no more heroic than they were. We simply don’t see our imperfections as clearly as we think we see theirs.

Eric Black, executive director/publisher/editor
Baptist Standard

Review: Beechdale Road

Beechdale Road: Where Mercy is More Powerful than Murder. A True Story

By Megan Shertzer and Tim Rogers (Beechdale Road)

More happened during the summer of 2020 than we might remember amid the COVID-19 pandemic and protests over George Floyd’s murder by Minneapolis police officers.

“On Sunday, June 21, 2020, 18-year-old Linda Stoltzfoos of Bird-in-Hand, Penn., never made it home from church.”

That’s where the story begins four years ago. Or so it might seem.

The story within the story is the bringing together of two families and even two communities. Linda belonged to the Amish community of Lancaster County in central Pennsylvania. Her killer was adopted into another family from a different Christian tradition. There might not be a story published four years later if it weren’t for all of those details.

Anyone who remembers brief news reports of this incident might vaguely remember the wonder of forgiveness demonstrated by the Amish community. Beechdale Road tells the story from the perspective, not of the family of the slain, but the family of the killer.

Justo Smoker was Tim Rogers’ brother-in-law and Megan Shertzer’s uncle. Tim’s wife’s family adopted Justo and his siblings from Costa Rica in 1993. Their stories are tragic, but they became beloved family members. Tim’s daughter Megan has many happy memories with her uncle. Those happy memories collided with what Justo did June 11, 2020, and all that unfolded.

Megan and Tim describe what it was like to be the family of a killer and to receive such profound mercy and love from the family of the one killed. They don’t sugarcoat their pain and struggle, which makes the love freely poured on them by the Amish community stand out all the more.

Beechdale Road is a short book. It can be read in one sitting by quick readers. Even if it takes longer, it should be read. Even if your story is nowhere near as tragic, there are powerful lessons here for our acrimonious days.

Eric Black, executive director/publisher/editor

Baptist Standard

Review: Never Alone

Never Alone: Ruth, the Modern Military Spouse, and the God Who Goes with Us

By Jessica Manfre (Moody Publishers)

For military spouses and others who move far from family and friends, especially when the relocation promises to be temporary, loneliness can become a permanent companion.

United States Coast Guard spouse Jessica Manfre has lived that journey of drowning in fears and feeling lonely and isolated. While reading the book of Ruth, the licensed social worker and therapist realized the similarity of Ruth’s story and her own. That experience birthed Never Alone: Ruth, the Modern Military Spouse, and the God Who Goes with Us.

The story sequence of Ruth provides the framework for the book’s eleven short chapters with timely topics such as Lonely Hurts, Guarding Your Heart, Wading Through Military Life, Your Marriage Is Your Covenant, Friendship Is a Gift, Church Can Always Be Home and Lovingkindness.

Each chapter follows a similar format. First, the author shares basic background and the experiences of herself and others, including some nonmilitary spouses like the pastor’s wife whose denomination frequently moves the family.

Manfre then walks through the topic and its unique issues, offers practical advice, provides easy-to-understand clinical-research-based data that reinforces the guidance, and finally grounds the information in biblical truth. Each chapter closes by moving through Ruth’s story to illustrate similarities.

However, the 15-year-Coastie wife doesn’t sugarcoat problems. She acknowledges physical symptoms sometimes accompany emotional and mental health issues, but she offers sincere truth and a toolbox for coping with what sometimes become every two-to-three-year moves or months-long separations.

Such advice includes friendship speed dating, while remembering that good-byes hurt, learning the difference between loneliness and solitude, talking through issues with your spouse, quickly seeking a church that feels like home, developing grit, letting go of failures, facing struggles honestly, and realizing the impact lovingkindness can make on the receiver and the giver.

Jessica Manfre’s personal lovingkindness comes through the comforting and comfortable conversational style of Never Alone. She emphasizes the ripple effect of acts of lovingkindness, illustrated by her own involvement in the makeover of a home of a military spouse diagnosed with cancer and initiating GivingTuesdayMilitary with the goal of 1 million acts of kindness, projects that led her to be named the 2019 Armed Forces Coast Guard Spouse of the Year.

Although targeted to military spouses, the quick read not only provides advice applicable to anyone, but also presents practical ideas and a biblical foundation to motivate Christians to extend welcoming hospitality and to offer lovingkindness in abundance.

Kathy Robinson Hillman, former president

Texas WMU and Baptist General Convention of Texas


Review: The Narrow Path

The Narrow Path: How the Subversive Way of Jesus Satisfies our Souls

By Rich Villodas (Waterbrook)

The narrow path is not like the broad, wide, easy path. The narrow path is hard. Fewer find it. Fewer choose to follow it.

The narrow way is contrary to everything American culture and human desires tell us is good, Rich Villodas suggests. The narrow way looks painful and backward.

After framing spiritual formation in terms of the narrow path—one part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount—Villodas examines the entire sermon. He argues Jesus was not teaching how to achieve salvation, but how to demonstrate one is saved.

Villodas walks through the Sermon on the Mount in 12 chapters—what is three chapters in the Gospel of Matthew. He bores down into the Beatitudes, as well as Jesus’ teaching against showy religion.

He presents Jesus’ teaching on prayer as a break between the rigor of the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount and the severity of what follows. Prayer is necessary preparation for the life Jesus expects his followers to live and believes they can live. For example, Jesus told his followers they are salt and light, not that they would become those.

Villodas dives deep into our psyche, motivations, hurts, fears and desires in the first part of The Narrow Path. This doesn’t mean his writing is hard to understand. Rather, it’s hard because it’s personal.

In the second part, he completes the Sermon on the Mount with chapters on our being salt and light, the place of anger, the ways we label each other, lust, money, worry, judging others, doing God’s will and how we treat our enemies. These chapters settle into a more familiar devotional treatment, but are no less personally challenging.

The Narrow Path, scheduled to release July 16, could be a good standalone or supplement study for youth or young adults.

Eric Black, executive director/publisher/editor
Baptist Standard

Review: Untangling Critical Race Theory

Untangling Critical Race Theory: What Christians Need to Know and Why it Matters

By Ed Uszynski (IVP)

If you can read only one book on critical race theory—if you will read only one book on critical race theory—this is the one.

Ed Uszynski approaches CRT from a conservative and evangelical perspective. He holds to the infallibility of Scripture and calls for being discipled by the Bible, not sociology or politics. He doesn’t mince words, and he doesn’t take sides … politically. He says if you don’t have time or aren’t going to read about CRT, then, please, read your Bible.

CRT is a lightning rod. That’s why we need to understand it, Uszynski contends. And our understanding needs to go deeper than caricatures.

He sees a more important reason to understand CRT, though. One of conservative evangelicalism’s foundational authorities, Carl F.H. Henry, believed the conservative Christian emphasis on spirit over body left evangelicals without adequate language to address things the Bible talks about, allowing secular systems such as Marxism and Critical Theory—ancestors of CRT—to fill the linguistic vacuum.

Uszynski is not ignorant of Marxism’s, Critical Theory’s and many critical race theorists’ atheism. Nor does he commend their proposed solutions to the problems each diagnose, but he does advocate listening.

Marxism and Critical Theory ask incisive questions that reveal inroads and effects of sin in a way Christians steeped in capitalism and conservatism may miss. These questions are worth a thoroughly biblical response. Christians, then, ought to lead with Scripture and theology, not with politics, in responding to Marxism, Critical Theory and CRT.

Uszynski believes their critiques are the reaction of people in pain. Instead of listening for the pain and bringing the gospel to it, however, he sees conservative Christians leaning into politicization, changing Christianity from a religion that cares into a religion that strikes back.

Christians, being citizens of a heavenly kingdom and free from the capitalism/Marxism dichotomy, can engage CRT’s critique of race from a Scripture-informed stance. They can provide productive and God-honoring responses even in the face of CRT’s excesses and weaponization by both the political left and right.

Untangling Critical Race Theory is a challenging book, not because it’s hard to understand, but because its message is clear. CRT isn’t nearly as big a problem as is our sin and our penchant to bless it.

Untangling Critical Race Theory is scheduled to release June 25.

Eric Black, executive director/publisher/editor
Baptist Standard

Review: Disarming Leviathan: Loving Your Christian Nationalist Neighbor

Disarming Leviathan: Loving Your Christian Nationalist Neighbor

By Caleb E. Campbell (InterVarsity Press)

Make no mistake: Caleb Campbell sees Christian nationalism as dangerous. He believes it distorts the gospel. It ruptures families and divides churches. Like the symbolic Leviathan in Scripture, Christian nationalism is an evil, powerful and chaotic force that purposefully instills fear.

However, Christian nationalists are not the enemy. Some are family members. Many are devoutly committed to God, although they have been fed a distorted picture of what the Lord requires—and it’s not doing justice, loving mercy and walking humbly. All are neighbors whom we are called to love.

So, Campbell views his role as a missionary to Christian nationalists. That is not to say he views all who identify as Christian nationalists to be hopeless heretics or unsaved heathens. However, he believes they have been duped by leaders who have persuaded them to accept ideals contrary to the teachings of Jesus. And many have accepted Christian nationalism as a “tribal identity” that offers them a sense of belonging and reinforces their prejudices, without any genuine commitment to Christ. Some Christian nationalists need to be led gently back to the gospel, while others need to be introduced to it.

Campbell helps readers understand not only what Christian nationalism teaches, but also why its adherents find that message appealing. He explores the fears and anxieties that draw many to Christian nationalism. He encourages readers to listen to their Christian nationalist neighbors and extend hospitality to them.

One of the most helpful sections of the book is a “field guide” for responding to American Christian nationalists. The guide is not designed to equip readers to win debates. Rather, it is intended to help them engage in meaningful, heartfelt conversations with neighbors who espouse some of the most commonly repeated statements of Christian nationalism. By listening attentively, asking clarifying questions, affirming any shared values and avoiding red flags, missionaries to Christian nationalists can ask gently probing questions that invite their neighbors to think more deeply and consider what the Bible has to say.

In contentious times, Campbell addresses a controversial subject in a compassionate, pastoral and missional manner.

Ken Camp, managing editor

Baptist Standard

Review: The Wood Between the Worlds

The Wood Between the Worlds: A Poetic Theology of the Cross

By Brian Zahnd (IVP)

Poetry brings out strong feelings in people. For some, poetry is obscure and indiscernible, off-putting and oblique in every way.

For others, like me, it’s the vehicle by which the sacredness of life in this world can be captured most specifically—in a brief set of intentional words, which illuminate beauty, meaning and value in even the most mundane moments.

Though I dwell in a home filled with four vibrant reasons to celebrate the sacral nature of living, I am alone in my house in my appreciation of poetry. If you find yourself more in the pragmatic company of my husband and my children, believing poetry just isn’t for you, please do not discount this book.

Zahnd appeals to the growing renaissance of interest in spiritual imagination that seems to be taking shape among younger, emerging practitioners of our faith—regardless of whether they have Catholic, Orthodox or evangelical backgrounds. However, he does not go all in on poetry to the point where readers must wade through so much flowery language, they forget they came hunting for meat.

Rather, he gives all the meat they can stomach.

Zahnd presents the centrality of the cross to the gospel. But reacquainting readers with pre-historical-critical approaches to scriptural interpretation, he describes multiple ways to understand the crucifixion.

Zahnd draws on history, literature, art and film, in addition to Scripture. And, he includes a full-color spread of religious art and iconography of the cross through history to illustrate his discussion.

As God is the author of our faith, we do well to consider, and reconsider, his most beautiful work of poetry, the Word made flesh—the incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. The Wood Between the Worlds spurs readers to contemplate deeply the theopoetic scandal at the heart of our faith and mission and to examine anew the remarkable work God did there.

Calli Keener, news writer
Baptist Standard

Review: Brown Faces, White Spaces

Brown Faces, White Spaces: Confronting Systemic Racism to Bring Healing & Restoration

By Latasha Morrison (WaterBrook)

Systemic racism is real, pervasive and corrosive in the United States. It also is not inevitable, and the fabric of American society can be healed from it in practical ways. Brown Faces, White Spaces makes this case clearly and compellingly.

Centered on a three-part framework of preparation, dedication and liberation, the book systematically addresses systemic racism and how its threads can be unwoven.

Preparation involves learning about and confessing the racist underpinnings of society’s systems. Dedication involves committing to bring about redemptive change in those systems, and actually working to bring about those changes constitutes liberation.

“Liberation” may be a disconcerting term to some readers. Morrison does not mean liberation in the Marxist sense, but in the sense of Exodus and Jesus’ proclamation that he came to bring good news and freedom from captivity (Luke 4:18-19).

Morrison, acknowledging she can speak only for herself and the experiences of African Americans, includes personal stories throughout. BIPOC—Black, Indigenous and people of color—stories also are included.

The book also contains concrete examples of systemic racism and its influence in each of nine spheres—education, health care, the justice system, the marketplace, military, property ownership, entertainment, sports and the church. The spheres are considered through the lens of Scripture and the life and teaching of Jesus.

Brown Faces, White Spaces—due out May 21, 2024—is a good conversation starter. This does not mean the book is gentle. Morrison states more than once the content will be uncomfortable. It means readers are encouraged to take stock of the way things have been and the way they things are, then decide how things can be and begin working toward a different future.

Eric Black, executive director/publisher/editor
Baptist Standard

Review: Fighting for Family

Fighting for Family: The Relentless Pursuit of Building Belonging

By Chris and Julie Bennett (Harper Horizon)

In Fighting for Family, Baylor University graduates Chris and Julie Bennett draw on their experiences in the course of more than 20 years of ministry and marriage to present a practical handbook on developing healthy, thriving families and friendships.

In 2018, the Bennetts moved their family of six from Oklahoma, where Chris was a minister, to California, hoping to create an entertainment company related to “all things family,” only to be hit by an unexpected cancer diagnosis.

In the midst of adjusting to their new home with no existing support network, the Bennetts quickly learned the importance of accepting care and establishing new bonds.

In Fighting for Family, the Bennetts discuss their failures and successes in relating to people, both within their personal family and in the “family” they have established through friendships.

At times, in an attempt to appeal to an audience beyond evangelicals, the book can read as stereotypical middle-aged “cool” ministers trying to grow an audience for their new media company through overly-relevant language hoping to show they’re not stuffy or uncool.

But, don’t judge too quickly.

There is a good bit of helpful content, in particular a caution for extroverts in ministry—who might be inclined to welcome all in as “family”—to set appropriate boundaries for the good of all involved.

By the end, I found myself rooting for this family, who chose to be open about both their successes and failures in relationships so that others might grow. And, I found applications to my own life and ministry. I bet you will, too.

Calli Keener, news writer

Baptist Standard

Review: Blessed Are the Rest of Us

Blessed Are the Rest of Us: How Limits and Longing Make Us Whole

By Micha Boyett (Brazos Press)

Blessed Are the Rest of Us offers a fresh reading of the Beatitudes through the eyes of a mom of a nonverbal autistic child with Down syndrome.

Jesus challenged his followers to exercise their spiritual imaginations, envisioning a way of living that prioritizes the vulnerable with all their vulnerabilities. Micha Boyett challenges readers to reconsider human flourishing—blessedness—as based on innate worth rather than achievement. She provides a painfully beautiful and honest look at life as it is, with more than occasional glimpses of life lived according to “God’s dream” for humanity.

Boyett invites readers inside her home, transparently displaying her family’s strengths and struggles. She describes how she and her husband Chris dealt with the prenatal tests that revealed their third child, Ace, would be born with an extra chromosome and all its accompanying physical and developmental challenges. She describes painfully enduring the loss of an imagined child who never existed and joyfully embracing the reality of Ace as he is. She tells how a God-given hunger for justice led her and her husband to advocate for their son in the school system.

Some readers may be tempted to dismiss Blessed Are the Rest of Us when they get to the chapter on peacemaking, but that would be a mistake. Boyett describes how her church’s pastor and its board of elders—of which she was part—led their congregation to reconsider its traditional views about sexual orientation and gender identity. She acknowledges mistakes in how the discussion surrounding LGBTQ inclusion was handled by church leaders—herself included—while continuing to defend their decision.

But the real heroes of the chapter are Leah and Jared—a couple in their church who were the Boyetts’ closest friends and whose son shared a birthday with Ace. Leah and Jared continue to hold to a traditional understanding of what the Bible teaches regarding sexuality and gender, but they refuse to quit loving Micha and Chris Boyett when they end up on different sides of a divisive issue.

Blessed Are the Rest of Us steers clear of easy answers and sentimental platitudes. Instead, it reframes the blessed life and offers an honest-to-God look at grace-filled living.

Ken Camp, managing editor

Baptist Standard

Review: The Lazy Approach to Evangelism

The Lazy Approach to Evangelism: A Simple Guide for Conversing with Nonbelievers

By Eric Hernandez (GC2 Press)

Don’t let the title fool you. A lazy person will have a hard time getting through this 348-page book on apologetics. However, the lazy approach to The Lazy Approach is to start on p. 127, “Chapter 11: The Lazy Approach.”

But first, Hernandez argues for the necessity of apologetics from the vantage point of spiritual warfare. He uses the word “stronghold” from 2 Corinthians 10:4, defining the term with verse 5: “arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God.”

He then examines atheism, agnosticism and skepticism, postmodernism, scientism and naturalism, identifying the latter three as the more prominent strongholds in American culture that exert influence even in the church.

Knowing where a person is situated among these six “isms” gives clues to where a conversation with that person is likely to go.

The so-called “lazy approach” is Socratic—based on asking questions that allow one’s conversation partner to identify his or her own position. These questions are few and fairly simple, and they do not require a person to be a subject-matter expert on all things. Once a person’s position is known, the questioner can engage the other person through further questions.

Hernandez is keenly interested in the strategy of evangelism, likening it to chess. Along this line, he explains how to “maneuver a conversation” and offers five “tactical tools” to that end. Following the chapter describing “the lazy approach,” Hernandez uses the tactical questions to respond to skepticism, postmodernism, scientism and naturalism.

The remainder of The Lazy Approach is typical of other apologetics books by examining a standard set of arguments for the existence of God and the resurrection of Jesus.

One benefit of the book is Hernandez’s inclusion of sample conversations. He doesn’t just describe the approach, but he also shows how he uses it.

Eric Black, executive director/publisher/editor
Baptist Standard