Friday, November 28, 2014

Sermon of the Week (11/23 - 11/29, 2014) Rick Hardison on James 4:11-12 - What does it mean to "judge?"

Rick Hardison of Great Crossing Baptist Church preached on James 4 on 11/2/2014 (mp3). He demonstrates "four wrong ways of judging and one right way." Many people misunderstand what James was saying in this passage (and what Jesus meant about judging others as well).
1. Don't judge with false or incomplete information. Hardison doesn't use this terminology or say "cognitive bias," but too often we err in our judgement due to the fundamental attribution error. Example: You see a woman you know from church coming home one morning in the clothes she wore last night and you assume it's a "walk of shame" when actually she's been at the hospital all night taking care of her mother, who fell and broke her hip.

2. Don't slander. Slander is the spreading of something false due to the errors made in #1 above.

3. Don't judge outsiders the same as insiders (church members). Hardison has a good summary of the importance of a biblical understanding of church membership.

4. Don't judge things that are not sin. Hardison reads from a Jerry Bridges book here. Not dressing up for church is not a sin. The Bible teaches temperance rather than abstinence from alcohol, etc. (I bet that went over real well).

One critique, I think Hardison misses that judgement also implies condemnation, contra Romans 8:1. Recently reading the book unChristian (my review) which points out that when outsiders call Christians "judgmental," they really mean "condemning." The authors point out that while Christians have an obligation to point out God's standards, that does not mean that we condemn people because all of us are saved by the grace of God alone, and there is no one who is beyond redemption. There is an air of pride that James is hitting on as well.
"What if our judgmental attitudes are just posturing to look good to other believers?" Are we trying to please God or polishing our holy credentials in front of fellow insiders?" Kinnaman writes.

Christians often forget that "God's judgments about people are perfect; ours are not."

I enjoyed this sermon, hope you do too.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Thoughts on Church Membership from a Member's Perspective

Mark Dever's Nine Marks of a Healthy Church (3rd Edition) (9Marks) includes a chapter on embracing a biblical understanding of church membership. Dever's book has spawned a host of other books on church membership and perhaps led many churches to embrace some better screening and education of members or potential members. But these books strike me as similar to human resource books-- written more for the organization than the applicant. The attitude is "why should we let you join us?" which assumes a superior position. I think churches would do better to turn the question around and ask "why would you want to join us?"

There are two ways to approach a job or organizational interview-- to try and look your best so that you're accepted, or to use the interview to size up the organization and figure out whether you want to belong-- to determine whether you accept them. Only the desperate do the former, a solid applicant does the latter.

When you join an organization like a church you bring valuable assets, gifts, talents, experiences, and skill sets. You may have experience teaching or managing dozens of employees. You might build computers or websites for a living. You might be able to sing or play a musical instrument. You may own a large house perfect for hosting small groups. You may have previous experience with other established churches or church plants. You may be more involved in the community than anyone on staff. You should come with the expectation that joining the church means you are actively going to put those gifts to work in service to the others. Thus, you should be the one interviewing churches, not the other way around, to decide which one is the right fit.

Yesterday, a large local church-- part of its own network in the area-- announced it was in serious financial trouble and laying off half of its staff. This church was the envy of many, it had rapid growth, multiple campuses, thousands in attendance, and buildings capable of hosting huge community events. "Come join us!" the church blared. Yet the church failed to meet one of the basic requirements of any organization dealing with finances: it did not have a balanced budget. It had unwisely taken on debt it could not feasibly repay. The report also suggests the church did not have a strategic financial plan. That indicates a huge, irresponsible deficit of leadership and management. I would not apply at a bankrupt company unless I was intentionally obtaining a position where I could help turn it around.

I definitely agree with Dever et al that church membership is a serious commitment and decision. But I see the impetus more on the member, not the body. You shouldn't get married without having known the person through several seasons, to see what her character is made of. You shouldn't get married without counseling, including coming to an agreement about expectations, parenting, finances, expectations, etc. Likewise, a prospective member should interview the elder body and deacons thoroughly. What are their qualifications? What is their accountability structure? How long do they expect to remain at this location? What is the leadership style? What are they reading? What is the strategy? How does the church body see them? Is the church proving responsible in its stewardship of money, people, and resources?

To join a church because you like the preaching, music, or the friendly people is like marrying a woman based solely on her looks and how she acts in public. To say "I knew I wanted to join when I walked in the door," is akin to the love-at-first-sight fallacy. Likewise, to treat a church or any organization like you're an unworthy applicant-- you hope they accept you-- is not a good start to a healthy relationship.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

The Grand Design by Stephen Hawking (Book Review #111 of 2014)

The Grand Design
I read this book (published 2010) immediately after reading The Universe in a Nutshell (2001). I read Black Holes and Baby Universes a few years ago. I have read Brian Greene's works, so felt rather up-to-date on where quantum physics was at. I found this book to be more accessible than Greene's work, and a more interesting read than Nutshell since Hawking is contemplating theoretical physics' meaning for philosophy. That philosophical bent is a real problem for physics since the scientific method, which Hawking holds favorably in The Grand Design, requires hypothesis testing. For more on these problems, and a large criticism of Hawking I plan to read Lee Smolin's The Trouble with Physics.

The author begins by stating that philosophy has not kept up with science, particularly modern physics. Hawking gives a brief history of science with an emphasis on physics and a look at how philosophy looking at science developed from Aristotle (rejected atoms b/c soulless) to Descartes (believed that the body was machine governed by laws, but the soul was not) to Newton (discovered many laws of the universe but held that God was free to intervene against them).

If there are natural laws, can/does God violate them to perform miracles? That's an important question, as is the question of free will and determinism. Where does free will come from? If physicists nail down a Theory of Everything, will everything be deterministic henceforth?

Hawking writes the laws of (this) universe arose from the big bang, and lengthily establishes what those laws are. But the universe has an infinite number of histories and contingencies. Wrap your head around this:
"the probability amplitude that the universe is now in a particular state is arrived at by adding up the contributions from all the histories that satisfy the no-boundary condition and end in the state in question. In cosmology, in other words, one shouldn't follow the history of the universe from the bottom up because that assumes there's a single history, with a well-defined starting point and evolution. Instead, one should trace the histories from the top down, backward from the present time...The histories that contribute to the Feynman sum don't have an independent existence, but depend on what is being measured. We create history by our observation, rather than our history creating us...histories in which the moon is made of cheese do not contribute to the present state of our universe, though they might contribute to others. That might sound like science fiction, but it isn't."

Hawking explains M-theory, p-branes, and other developments in quantum physics. The last pages of the book are the most important as Hawking contends that M theory explains how a universe can arise from nothing. But it does not lead to determinism in the sense that it would be mathematically impossible to calculate the movements of any one being. So, a theory of everything that is not what Hawking desired to find in Black Holes and Baby Universes.

This book seems much more consequential than Nutshell. I found it more entertaining and thought-provoking throughout. For now, 4.5 stars out of 5.

The Universe in a Nutshell by Stephen Hawking (Book Review #110 of 2014)

The Universe in a Nutshell
I read this book followed by The Grand Design (back-to-back). Years ago, I read Hawking's Black Holes and Baby Universes, and it appears Hawking has changed his position on various things related to black holes and the Grand Unifying Theory since the 1980s, although he does not list them. How much of Hawkings remarks black holes does Hawking admit to be wrong on now? For that, I need to read Susskind's The Black Hole Wars. I have also read two of Brian Greene's works and was eager to compare. I found this book to be more accessible than Greene's works. Hawking's attempts at analogies describing time and space are brief and easier than Greene's drawn-out illustrations. Many of the negative reviews criticize the lack of depth, there are plenty of other works out there to choose from.

The reason the sky is dark at night is because not all of the light from the stars in the galaxy have reached us. This tells us that the universe must have been created at some finite point some time ago. Hawking details his own contributions to showing that the Big Bang happened. He discusses how it does no good to talk about what happened before time, which would require imaginary time. But Hawking believes scientists have a duty to investigate what happened before the Big Bang and what caused it. He has no patience for people like Carl Sagan who just weren't interested. Hawking explains Richard Feynman's concept of multiple histories. The concept of multiple histories still doesn't explain the cause of the big bang. While the crude form of the anthropic principle says the universe exists the way it is because we are here to see it, we can merge the principle with that of Feynman's multiple histories and supposedly explain why the universe is as we know it.

Determinism is obviously an issue in quantum physics. I would say that Hawking does not explain the multiple dimensions of M-theory very well; I would say he does a better job of that in The Grand Design (2010). To appeal to the sci-fi reader, Hawking has a rabbit rail on time travel. He explains how mathematically time travel is likely impossible, and would take an advanced civilization to figure out a way to do it without getting destroyed by radiation. He also has an odd divergence on human evolution and genetic engineering. While DNA doesn't seem to be evolving with new information, we're finding ways to engineer ourselves such that the human race will look dramatically different 400 years from now. We will have to do so to travel to the stars. This odd divergence on genetics is way outside his expertise and does not fit well in the book.

Hawking concludes with talk of a brane universe, and whether our universe is just a projected hologram. All of this is theoretical, which is a major problem for physicists. The scientific method, which Hawking holds favorably in The Grand Design, requires hypothesis testing. But Hawking ends the book by remarking that a particle collider larger than the universe would be required to test some of these theories. For more on these problems, and a large criticism of Hawking I plan to read Lee Smolin's The Trouble with Physics.

In all, good and accessible. 3.5 stars.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Sermon of the Week (11/16 - 11/22, 2014) John MacArthur on the Prodigal Son at Capitol Hill Baptist Church

The title and text of this sermon were mislabeled on the CHBC website. (It is not Isaiah 5-6, he apparently changed the text he used just before preaching). It is available here on iTunes.

This sermon comes from Luke 15:11-32. While this is a very commonly preached-upon text, I think this is the best sermon I've ever heard on it. MacArthur is looking partly at the joy of heaven, how there is a 24/7 party because people are always repenting. Jesus was telling an over-the-top story of grace here that would have enraged the Pharisees. MacArthur proposes a truly shocking but completely logical ending to this story that drives it home in a way you've probably never heard. Don't miss this one.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

How to Argue and Win Every Time by Gerry Spence (Book Review #109 of 2014)

How to Argue & Win Every Time: At Home, At Work, In Court, Everywhere, Everyday
This book is an enjoyable read written by a lawyer who, according to Wikipedia, has never lost a criminal case as either a prosecutor or defender, and hasn't lost a civil case in 46 years. This was written in 1996, a couple years after I first heard of Spence when he skillfully defended Randy Weaver and exposed major problems in the federal government's actions in the Ruby Ridge case. Spence has defended Imelda Marcos and a host of others.

The negative reviews of this book seem to be by people who wanted a quick silver bullet, which is not what Spence provides. "Winning" has to be defined, as does "argument." Spence states that not every argument can be one, there is no need for a suicide charge. A "tactical retreat" is often a smart maneuver in winning a larger war.

The first part of the book reminded me of Plato, it reads like Socrates' dialectic. Spence (an ardent environmentalist) has an imaginary dialogue with a lumberjack, showing that if you can empower someone ("would you serve on a committee looking at this issue?") in their compromise, you win the argument.  Argument is necessary. It's an important part of identity and personal growth. "Every boss should have a sign on his desk saying 'Argue with me,'" he writes. Spence proposes a new paradigm of argument: Argument is a means by which we bring about change, either in ourselves or others. It is a way to achieve an outcome you desire. What do you want to change?

"You are your own authority," and submitting to an external authority will stunt your growth. Both parties to an argument retain their authority, which makes "winning" somewhat problematic to define. You are simply changing someone without changing their authority, or accepting someone else's argument without relinquishing your own authority.

"All power, yours and theirs, is yours." Our power is creativity, joy, pain, experiences, belonging only to us. "Their power is my perception of their power." Others possess only what we give them. These philosophical/psychological points underpin his argument in the book. (These thoughts on not submitting to outside authorities will be problematic to those who look at an outside source-- like the Bible-- as their authority. Spence does not address absolutes in the book).

We should not live life skeptical of every little thing, but we should be skeptical. We want to trust the salesman, reporter, etc., but we need to listen and think. We also need to be aware of our own prejudices and cognitive biases, as well as the person you're arguing with. "I've learned more from my dogs" than any of the so-called "experts from on high."

Spence writes that you should always tell the truth. An admission on your part scores points with a jury while an exposure of yourself by your opponent undermines your case. Better to confess than be exposed and accused of hiding something.

Tell a complete story. Use pictures in your words. Do not appeal to the jury's intellect, but rather their emotions. Use simple language that paints vivid pictures. (He gives a wonderful example of how he did this in front of an audience hostile to his environmentalism, converting some to his side.) Practice putting emotion into your words. Think of certain situations where you have felt emotion X. Now pick a word you associate with that emotional situation. Say that word with the emotion you associate with that experience. Practice it in your car, the shower, etc. Practice growling, practice showing joy. Spence comes across like an old-time stump speaker or carnival barker; it's obviously effective. Make the "magical argument." "I know this man is innocent and I want badly to show you how I know..."

It is better to convince one person in your audience who will make a lasting change than your entire audience and they forget what you said by morning. "Winning" is the conversion of that one rather than the majority.

Spence concludes the book with great thoughts in regards to communication in marriage. If you want love or respect, you need to communicate love and respect. If you want a major life change, explain to your wife the entire story, what happens first, next, and what the end picture is ("... and we live happily ever after"). Spence regrets misspent years as a parent who saw his children as pupils rather than as independent individuals. He learned from his wife that it's better to show your children respect. If you want your children to respect you, show respect to them by giving them freedom to learn and fail, give them responsibilities, show them trust and watch them earn more. If you want to win the argument with your 16 year old, you have to star when he's 6. If you love unconditionally, people are more willing to listen to your argument-- the argument can be won without words.

The same principles apply at work. If you want respect from your boss, you must always demonstrate that you respect her. If asking for a raise, frame it in terms of the benefit to the company. "With a raise (tuition reimbursement, etc.), I will be able to devote less time to my outside activities, boost company productivity, increase profit, etc." Spence writes that corporations are amoral entities "No one has ever seen a corporation." The corporation exists to make certain people profit, so you win arguments with a corporation only by framing it in the interest of the shareholders.

I found this to be a highly entertaining and personally helpful read. I recommend it. 4 stars out of 5.

Monday, November 17, 2014

I'm sort of okay with Kevin Harvick winning it all in 2014

For those of you who missed it, Kevin Harvick won yesterday's final race, making him the champion. He had to finish in the top spot among the four finalists, and instead won the race outright. He gave a shout-out to Jimmie Johnson afterwards for helping him mentally during the week. As I've written earlier this month, the NASCAR championship format change was a real drag on those of us who like results, and not randomness, to decide the champion. Brian France made the change to put more emphasis on winning and winning at key times, but Ryan Newman came very close to clinching the title without having any wins (yesterday could have been his first win, he came in second-- his single highest finish of the season).Sagarin's results look like this:

                        RATING  1st 2nd 3rd 4th 5th  6-10 11-20 RACES  HI  LO
 1 Jeff Gordon           84.61    4   8   0   1   1     9     7    36   1  39
 2 Brad Keselowski       82.89    6   4   5   2   0     3     7    36   1  39
 3 Joey Logano           80.20    5   0   2   7   3     5     9    36   1  40
 4 Kevin Harvick         79.96    5   6   1   1   1     6     9    36   1  42
 5 Dale Earnhardt Jr.    74.15    4   3   2   0   3     8     9    36   1  43
 6 Jimmie Johnson        68.36    4   1   3   2   2     8     4    36   1  42
 7 Matt Kenseth          68.33    0   2   4   5   2     9     7    36   2  42
 8 Kyle Larson           61.25    0   3   2   1   2    10    11    36   2  43
 9 Denny Hamlin          59.44    1   1   2   1   2    11     9    35   1  42
10 Ryan Newman           58.99    0   1   2   0   2    10    17    36   2  41

Logano had two bad pit stops yesterday and was done. He whined a little after the race about consistency no longer mattering, he's right (but I imagine my blog sounds less whiny than his voice). Harvick had won the most polls this season and led over 1,000 laps-- his car had been fast but hadn't always finished that well, so that allowed writers to say "the fastest car won." Harvick tied Keselowski, Johnson and Dale Jr. with 20 top ten finishes, behind Logano's 22 and Gordon's 23. This was also more than Hamlin and Newman had achieved, and Hamlin missed a race.

This Chase played out similar to the one three years ago when Tony Stewart barely beat Carl Edwards by one point. It came down to 2-3 drivers in the final laps. Some guys deserve it, and Harvick is apparently one of those guys. But he will always be remembered for this:

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Sermon of the Week (11/9 - 11/15, 2014) Matt Chandler on Woman's Hurdles

Matt Chandler of The Village Church is finishing a series entitled "A Beautiful Design," which is mostly about complementarity of the sexes. His sermon from 11/2 entitled "Woman's Hurdles" impressed me so much I had Joni listen to it so we could discuss it. Chandler is preaching on how anxiety, unfair comparisons, and insecurity often rule women's hearts moreso than men's. There is a Buffalo Trace Pappy Van Winkle bourbon reference. Chandler also quotes from articles I'd read in The Atlantic and elsewhere. I think this sermon is powerful and extremely important for men and women to listen to, particularly spouses. Some good thoughts on parenting as well. This is one of the best sermons I've posted in this series, enjoy!
(available in audio, video, and text formats)

Friday, November 14, 2014

Unchristian by David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons (Book Review #108 of 2014)

Unchristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity...and Why It Matters

This book was informative yet very frustrating to read. I think I would rather have just read charts of the survey data with a few quoted comments from the interviews.

The Church has been struggling with its identity and the issues covered in this book since Constantine. Kinnaman makes some recommendations that appear contradictory-- being unChristian is difficult. He's quite young himself, so one gathers he lacks some scholarship and knowledge of church history that would help him in forming both his opinions and prescriptions. This book looks at attitudes of Americans only, so it's also very focused on U.S. culture and politics. Each chapter concludes with a hodgepodge of quotes from various pastors and authors that relates to information presented in the chapter. Some of these quotes contain description of the authors' attempts at countering the negative trend, or contain some exhortations. These are somewhat contradictory. Conservatives will point out that Brian McLaren and Jim Wallis are quoted a few times while other more conservative thinkers are not quoted at all. Are these the standard Kinnaman and Lyons are holding up? It's not clear.

That said, I highlighted many of the survey results. What is most interesting is that surveys taken by Barna in the 1990s showed Americans held Christians in significantly higher esteem than they do now. Christians are now seen by Mosaics as part of the problem, at least politically, rather than a potential force for good.

We are still a nation of spiritually-interested people. Most adults in this country say they have made a "personal commitment to Jesus Christ" and nearly half are relatively active churchgoers, but attitudes about church vary tremendously from the younger generation to the oldest. The authors focus on Busters (born 1965-1983) and Mosaics (born 1984-2002) to show the widening differences even between these two generations. The majority of Busters and Mosaics at least attended a church during high school but less than 10% see faith as a top priority. Kinnaman uses the term "outsider" to describe the relatively unchurched, non-Christian population and "insider" to desribe those in the holy huddles.

"By a wide margin, the top life priorities of eighteen- to twenty-five- year-olds are wealth and personal fame (48)...Only one-fifth of young outsiders believe that an active faith helps people live a better, more fulfilling life" (130). One out of every six young outsiders has very negative perceptions of Christianity and the church.

The book explains various reasons for the negative perception you probably already know: Heavy political involvement by Christians, outward "judgemental" pride of evangelicals, a widespread belief that church is boring, and a sense that Christians aren't genuine in their concern for people, among others.

But Kinnaman makes a good point that it's too easy to blame peoples' rejection of Christianity on spiritual darkness and "hardening of hearts" (Ephesians 4:18). Nor is it the typical claims about hypocrisy and scandals in the church turning people away. (In fact, Mosaics are fairly forgiving and understand that people make mistakes. What they reject is the lack of transparency and openness about it.) Similarly, outsiders are not all united in their objections and politics, something you might forget when listening to Albert Mohler's daily podcast. 
"Outsiders have far less political unity, consistency, and commonality than Christians might assume. They are not uniformly antagonistic toward Christians. Their political views are not neat and simple. This has an important implication for Christians: political activism on the part of outsiders is not dead set against Christianity...It is easy to assume that society is divided into 'us-versus-them forces. The reality is much less clear-cut" (169).

"Christianity’s image problem with a new generation is not due merely to spiritual resistance on the part of outsiders, although sometimes this plays a role...But you would be dead wrong to conclude that people discard Christ for a simple set of factors or just to avoid feelings of spiritual guilt (32)."

"Outsiders told us that the underlying concern of Christians often seems more about being right than about listening" (35). This shows up both in how the church evangelizes as well as gets most visibly involved in politics.
"We found that only 9 percent of young outsiders describe Christians as 'people they trust a lot.' As we probed the reasons for this, the most frequent answer was our involvement in politics" (178).

Kinnaman lays out a few Myths and Reality according to Barna's research. Some of the Myths were taught to me in the event-driven Southern Baptist church I was raised in. For example:

Myth : The best evangelism efforts are those that reach the most people at once. Reality : The most effective efforts to share faith are interpersonal and relationship based. When we asked born-again Busters to identify the activity, ministry event, or person most directly responsible for their decision to accept Jesus Christ, 71 percent listed an individual—typically (76)

Myth : Anything that brings people to Christ is worth doing. Reality : When you’re talking dollars, there is no price too high for a soul. But the problem isn’t just cost. In our research with some of the leading “mass evangelism” efforts, we found that often these measures create three to ten times as much negative response as positive. (77)

This is huge because the negative response is not usually measured by churches. Mass evangelism efforts largely fail to make disciples. The Gospel is an incomplete one if it is only about an individual "getting saved." The Gospel includes God's redemption of mankind and nature, it's a life-changing reality to be part of the Kingdom of Heaven. If the focus is purely on an individual "fire insurance" decision, then the person sees no need for greater community. "A get-saved approach ignores the fact that most people in America have made an emotional connection to Jesus before; now they need much more than a one-dimensional (Gospel)" (83).

The authors lay out some responses of people who were hostile to street evangelism, essentially saying Christians had not earned the right to question them.
"We heard no favorable comments about so-called street witnessing."

Myth : People embrace Christianity because of logical arguments. Reality : Most people, by personality, are not logical thinkers and are not likely to change their beliefs because of elegant argumentation or apologetics...Mosaics and Busters are more likely to possess a nonlinear, fluid way of processing life, they are increasingly comfortable with subtlety, nuance, ambiguity, and contradiction. So even if you are able to weave a compelling logical argument, young people will nod, smile, and ignore you" (78-79).

This was thought-provoking for me since I study a lot of apologetics, always refining arguments in my head. I also read a lot of behavioral economic research so I should know that people have logical inconsistencies and cognitive biases. If simply arguing logically worked, the whole world would have responded to the Gospel. New Atheists make illogical arguments against orthodox Christianity and it is effective even if it is quite frustrating to great logical thinkers like R.C. Sproul.

Being a "mouth" instead of a hand or foot has also hurt the church. 
"One of our weaknesses is that we’re far more concerned with being right than being righteous" (210).

Instead of a complete Gospel, we've simply taught that following rules are the Gospel.

"Based on our research, Christians are not defined by such transparency but by adherence to rigid rules and strict standards" (63).
Two-thirds of churchgoers said, “Rigid rules and strict standards are an important part of the life and teaching of my church.” Three out of every five churchgoers in America feel that they “do not measure up to God’s standards.” And one-quarter admitted that they serve God out of a sense of “guilt and obligation rather than joy and gratitude” (56).

We also have gotten so comfortable using militaristic language in our church culture that we don't realize we're scaring visitors.
"when a Christian talks about being engaged in a battle, this type of metaphor stems from the scriptural references that describe the spiritual world as an epic struggle (see Eph. 6:10–17). Yet outsiders hear this language and become alarmed by the militaristic talk" (170).

So, what's the key to regaining the church's positive influence?

"Be my friend with no other motives. Outsiders say they sometimes get the feeling that Christians have befriended them with the ulterior motive of getting them into church. They like having Christian friends, but not with those who have a not-so-hidden agenda. Outsiders said, for instance, they generally don’t mind being prayed for or being served in some way, but they get uneasy when they sense that these efforts are part of a scheme to “warm them up” to go to church someday. Friendship ought to be real, based on genuine interest in one another" (206).

Genuineness also means living out an active Christianity, not just being satisfied by having the best doctrine. Jesus didn't pray in the Garden of Gethsemane that our doctrine would be pure, but rather that we'd be "one." Kinnaman and pastors he quotes (from places like XXXchurch) urge Christians not to shelter themselves and build their own institutions but to engage their community where they're at. This jives with Thomm Rainer's research that "friendly churches" are ones where the members are active and influential in their community-- they have friends outside their holy huddle.

"Two-thirds of young outsiders said the faith is boring, a description embraced by one-quarter of young churchgoers as well. The image of being sheltered means the Christian faith seems dull, flat, and lifeless" (130).

"When Christians shelter themselves, letting 'someone else' answer the world’s doubts and address its problems, they abdicate their biblical role to be spiritual influencers. It is incumbent on us to develop our hearts and minds so that we can fulfill our destiny as agents of spiritual, moral, and cultural transformation" (141).

It also means involving young people in the heart of church life from an early age. Reggie Joiner (of the Rethink Group) is quoted: "If a young person is not challenged by hands-on personal ministry, their faith will likely be sidetracked and even sabotaged. For some, that hands-on experience is a mission project across the ocean. For others, it’s a role in a family production or a place behind the ladle at a soup kitchen" (151)

Besides looking at outsiders' perceptions of the church, Kinnaman paints a dreary picture of what young evangelicals believe. What does it mean to be a Christian to Mosaics?

"Based on a study released in 2007, we found that most of the lifestyle activities of born-again Christians were statistically equivalent to those of non–born-agains" (52).

"(A) majority of born-again adults in their twenties and thirties currently believe that gambling, cohabitation, and sexual fantasies are morally acceptable...The only two areas of statistical similarity between older and younger born-again Christians are views on abortion and using the f-word on television" (58).

"How many do you think possess a biblical worldview? Our research shows only 3 percent of Busters and Mosaics embrace (essential biblical world view beliefs)" (82).

"young Americans were the least likely age group to say that the Bible ought to be the most significant influence on the laws of the country, instead favoring the “will of the people” as the best way to determine legal boundaries" (172). (In other words, Millenials haven't been taught that laws necessitate reasoning based on absolutes.)

That is a pretty depressing picture. The authors give some examples of "hope," however. There has been an attempt recently by groups to engage the culture by working within institutions, such as developing scholarship programs for Christians at Ivy League schools.

"At Princeton alone, close to 10 percent of the student body is regularly involved in one or more of the Christian groups on campus. And the number of students involved with the Harvard chapter of Campus Crusade for Christ has increased fivefold over the last two decades. Similar developments can be seen at Stanford, Duke, and Yale" (156).

In this review, I've quoted mostly from the research rather than regurgitate the quotes from various authors and Christian leaders at the end of each chapter. What does a better church look like, according to the book? One that is active in loving the community both at home and domestically, cares about the environment, genuinely befriends its neighbors, does not loudly engage in politics or in "Christian Soldier" type language or confuse Christianity with American patriotism. A church that is open to everyone serving, including youth, and not boring, yet is led by people with Biblical theology and a Biblical world view.

Practically speaking, this is difficult. It takes intentional theological training to create leaders with a Biblical world view and who are able to argue logically and lead their congregations and deal with all the sin and confusion Mosaics and Busters bring into the church in a loving fashion. That necessarily excludes certain people. The "healthiest" churches I see are often among the most "boring," hour-long sermons and a ton of time in Bible study but much less activity demonstrating what the Bible teaches in its community. The most educated leaders tend to be the ones with podcasts and giving interviews complaining about the demise of our culture and criticizing the current President. These tensions are never resolved in the book. Again, if McLaren and Wallis are held up as good examples, then that's a problem for many in trying to accept the book's advice. I give this book 2.5 stars out of 5. Useful information but frustrating in its presentation.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

More on why NASCAR's 2014 championship format stinks

These are Jeff Sagarin's ratings, how drivers are rated is pretty obvious.  The highlighted drivers below are the only ones eligible to win the championship on Sunday. Whoever finishes highest among those four will be the official champion. What's wrong with this picture?

                        RATING  1st 2nd 3rd 4th 5th  6-10 11-20 RACES  HI  LO
 1 Jeff Gordon           85.30    4   8   0   1   1     8     7    35   1  39
 2 Brad Keselowski       82.01    6   4   4   2   0     3     7    35   1  39 3 Joey Logano           81.32    5   0   2   7   3     5     8    35   1  40
 4 Kevin Harvick         77.29    4   6   1   1   1     6     9    35   1  42
 5 Dale Earnhardt Jr.    74.94    4   3   2   0   3     8     8    35   1  43
 6 Jimmie Johnson        68.45    4   1   3   2   2     7     4    35   1  42
 7 Matt Kenseth          67.92    0   2   4   5   2     8     7    35   2  42
 8 Kyle Larson           61.58    0   3   2   1   2    10    10    35   2  43
 9 Denny Hamlin          58.98    1   1   2   1   2    10     9    34   1  42
10 Carl Edwards          58.57    2   0   0   1   4     8    13    35   1  41

                        RATING  1st 2nd 3rd 4th 5th  6-10 11-20 RACES  HI  LO
11 Kyle Busch            58.22    1   3   3   1   1     6     9    35   1  42
12 Ryan Newman           56.86    0   0   2   0   2    10    17    35   3  41

If you said "Wow, I thought the new system was supposed to put an emphasis winning yet someone who hasn't even finished in the top 2 can be a champion!" then give yourself a "bingo!" This aspect has been totally ignored by the media. Newman got in over Jeff Gordon after intentionally wrecking Kyle Larson on the last lap of last week's race. This led to an awkward post-race interview in which Gordon tried to pretend the moral of the story is to race the right way "without wrecking people," which was obviously against the facts. The bottom two (Hamlin, Newman) combined have fewer top 5 finishes than several racers above them alone, including Gordon and Keselowski. 

Jimmie Johnson tweeted that he's pulling for Harvick, so I suppose I will also. 

Letter to a Christian Nation by Sam Harris (Book Review #107 of 2014)

Letter to a Christian Nation
I suppose this book has been so popular because its shorter than Hitchens or Dawkins' works. Harris brings no new arguments-- he doesn't bring any arguments, really. He claims at one point to be arguing on behalf of thousands of years of science and philosophy but does not cite any of it, particularly philosophy. There have always been philosophical debates about the existence of God, and plenty of philosopher apologists-- Harris is apparently unaware of all of them. As such, he does not argue with thousands of years of philosophers who held a Christian world view, he is only arguing with a caricature of a modern Christian. He apparently is also unfamiliar with logic as the book is filled with contradictions. Harris argues, as Hitchens and Dawkins do, that plenty of atheists are "moral people" who show "compassion" but Harris does not define what morality is. The reader can conclude that Harris himself determines what morality is, or perhaps the 51% majority do? In that sense, Harris makes same mistake as the others-- he has no objective basis on which to make his claims of morality. Christians, on the other hand, make moral claims on the belief that there are absolute truths that are known, one of which being that life is precious because man is created in the image of God and therefore worthy of respect.

Harris, however, opens the book by praising "Christians" who reject absolute truths, which is a major problem for him. Hitchens, for one, rejected liberals or moderates who did not believe in a resurrected Christ who literally lived, taught, died, and was resurrected because that is what the Bible teaches and is the bedrock of orthodox Christianity. Harris basically accepts anyone who marginally believed there may have been a Jesus as a "Christian," which again defies logic. Why hold up as enlightened liberals who reject thousands of years of scholarship and archaeology to reach their own conclusions on who Jesus was based upon their own subjective opinions? It's not clear.

Since Harris alone defines truth in his world view, he can reject as "ignorant" anyone who does not agree with him. He's horrified that the majority of Americans believe in a God, a judgment day, miracles, etc. He does not acklnowledge that thousands of PhD-holding biologists, astrophysicists, anthropologists, etc. are also in this majority and have been for centuries. His preferred method of setting laws and education would be a tyranny of an elect, enlightened few who share his identical ideas. Yet, he calls Christians "intolerant," not realizing that he is also.

Harris is also ignorant of biblical theology. He criticizes his Christian caricatures for taking verses out of context when he is guilty of the same. He is completely ignorant that orthodox Christians, protestant, Catholic, etc., believe that the Old Testament is interpreted through the New, that all of it points to Christ. Therefore, he's completely lost in arguing Christians should follow the laws in Deuteronomy. Like the other new atheists, Harris sees much of the Bible as a prohibition of sexual pleasure-- prudishness for prudishness sake. (He also does not acknowledge that polls repeatedly find married Christians more satisfied with their sexual lives than non-Christians). He does not understand the Gospel, which is tragic.

The book is Hitchens and Dawkins lite, nothing more. The reader should check out Francis Schaeffer's How Then Should We Live for a look at how Western thought, including the humanistic atheism that Harris claims is "truth," developed. It's much better written then this trope and spans centuries of scientific and philosophical thought. I would also recommend William Lane Craig's Reasonable Faith, for starters.

It's worth noting that Harris shares a position with many evangelical Christians-- inter-faith dialogue is "useless." Harris writes that many on the Left in the West want to refuse to believe that religious wars happen, when most of the tensions we see around the world revolve around religion: Muslim vs. Buddhist, Christian vs. Muslim, Sunni vs. Shia, etc. Harris opines that it has more to do with religion than simply tribes or cultures. When a person's worldview leads him to conclude that he knows what absolute truth is, then everyone else must be wrong and part of the problem. Harris points to 9/11 and other terrorist attacks as examples of  what happens when a group of even well-educated people demonstrate that they "truly believe in a God" and an afterlife. His comments about Islam have drawn criticism from many in America.

Still, Christians would do well to read these kinds of books to see what outsiders think of them and to examine certain statements they make that are problematic. These are the low-hanging fruit that the new atheists latch onto. Harris calls Christians to task-- if we really believe in a God and an afterlife, why don't we live with more conviction? If we believe in a God who is able to work miracles, why do we never pray for an amputee to regrow her limbs? I just wouldn't recommend this one as it's far inferior to Hitchens' God is Not Great. 1 star out of 5. Check out the one-star reviews from atheists.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

How Should We Then Live? by Francis Schaeffer (Book Review #106 of 2014)

How Should We Then Live? (L'Abri 50th Anniversary Edition): The Rise and Decline of Western Thought and Culture

This was the free audiobook of the month on last month. I read Colson and Pearcey's How Now Shall We Live in college, which is a much longer updated version of this book with more applications. I recommend that as a follow-up text. Books on church history, histories of Europe in the Middle Ages would be helpful as prerequisites, as well as overviews of philosophy, before reading Schaeffer's work.

This book is a fairly brief summary of the development of Western culture through its art and architecture, as well as a defense of the Christian world view's role in preserving culture and promoting principles of liberty. Schaeffer beings by examining the way art and architecture changed from the Roman empire to the Middle Ages. Christians, Schaeffer remarks, were remarkably resistant to syncretism, refusing to worship idols or caesars or adopt these practices into their worship. Schaeffer holds up many examples but this contrasts with his later observations of how the Catholic Church incorporated Greek philosophy into its theology, persecuting Galileo and Copernicus when their findings contradicted Aristotle (and not the Bible, which modern "new atheists" often purport). He defends the Reformation against accusations that it was antithical to art and culture. The Refomers did not go about criticizing art for art's sake, but were highly supportive of art that was based in truths. They simply rejected art that was contrary to those truths that society and law were based upon-- namely that of a biblical world view. Likewise, Schaeffer writes, the Renaissance wasn't made possible simply because of the re-discovery of "lost" Greek works, but by having a Christian worldview as the basis for exploring those works. This contradicts some historians like Norman Cantor (Schaeffer doesn't mention these, I reviewed Cantor's work earlier this year) who argue that the Church had to re-address Aristotelian philosophy as their works were translated into Latin in the 11th century as Muslims and Jews had already been doing in their own languages for centuries. Schaeffer traces the development of humanism and determinism out of the Renaissance as parallel with the development of biblical theology out of the Reformation.

There is quite a bit of a disconnect as Schaeffer leaves out various details. Disconnect between the Luther that Schaeffer espouses and Luther's many statements inciting violence, hatred of the Jews, etc. He doesn't discuss the theocratic nature of European governments; you don't see Calvin burning anyone at the stake for heresy under state law. Schaeffer does write, however, that the Reformers and Christianity obviously got race wrong. But he points out that it was Christians like William Wilberforce who were instrumental in ending chattel slavery.

The power of this book comes in Schaeffer's examination of the logical conclusions of humanism and determinism and how earlier scholars like Newton and Da Vinci rejected determinism because they read to anti-biblical conclusion. Explanations of time + chance are problematic because neither time nor chance are forces that can do anything. Ultimately, cosmologists and biologists alike are convinced that we are ultimately machines. This is what Leonardo Da Vinci also determined was the natural conclusion of mathematics. Mathematics leads us to particulars (via Aristotle) but only lead us to humanity being a machine-- which Da Vinci rejected as incompatible with a worldview that included belief in a deity defining absolute truths. If we are simply machines, then we have no moral basis for any of our laws or society-- who defines what? Hence, the American Revolution differed from the French Revolution because it was based on a Christian belief that all men are endowed by a Creator with inalienable rights. The French revolution had no such basis, it was simply an overthrow of the order and rooted in humanism-- hence it led to violence, chaos, and the rise of another dictator. Schaeffer recounts how those conclusions played out in the USSR and China, still very Communist when he wrote this in 1976. He looks at policy prescriptions from the 1960s and 1970s by psychologists and philosophers-- including putting LSD in the water, Galbraith's desire (along with various "futurists") to have society ruled by an elite cadre of technocrats. "Who rules the rulers?" asks Schaeffer, pointing out that the psychologists and psychiatrists that determine the fitness of these rulers ultimately are the king-makers holding power. These prescriptions reminded me a lot of Plato's Republic, though Schaeffer does not draw that parallel.

What determines truth? The 51% of majority rule? America's founding fathers found that anathema, drawing on the work of earlier political philosophers. The tyranny of the majority can be cruel indeed. Young people today believe that the only basis for our laws should be majority will, which does not bode well for minority rights when they have also been indocrinated in the humanistic doctrine that we are all simply machines with no afterlife to consider.

Schaeffer has prescience about global terrorism: People will be willing to give up liberty in exchange for strong agents pledged to fight against the lack of economic power and security as a result of terrorist activity. Schaeffer quotes Gibbons' in pointing out that Rome had five characteristics in its decline: 1. A mounting love of show and luxury. 2. A widening gap between rich and poor. 3. Obsession with sex. 4. Freakishness in the arts and enthusiasms pretending to be creativity (reality TV and Jackass, anyone?). 5. An increased desire to live off the State. "It all sounds so familiar. We have come a long road since our first chapter, and we are back in Rome."

The book is brief and skips over perhaps too many details. Items such as the difficulties of Thomas Aquinas' thought are "much richer than we can discuss here..." among others. But I would recommend every Christian (and non-Christian) read this book. It is worth reading while reading Hitchens, Dawkins, or other "new atheists," as Schaeffer makes a strongly logical argument in contrast with theirs. Decide for yourself which society you prefer. 4.5 stars out of 5.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Career Diplomacy: Life and Work in the U.S. Foreign Service by Kopp and Gillespie (Book Review #105 of 2014)

This book details the history and evolution of, as well as the present challenges facing, the U.S. Foreign Service. This is the 2nd edition of the book, published in 2011 and very informative. The authors do a good job compiling information from interviews with various FSOs and show the good and bad of the Service. I consider it a must-read for anyone interested in applying. The authors explain the various uses of the Foreign Service and the current challenges of developing military and civilian cooperation in the U.S. practice of nation building in places like the Middle East. Current controversies are detailed, along with recruitment practices, policies for advancement, salary scales, etc. This book is basically a one-stop shop for information and contains pages of highly entertaining stories from the field. 5 stars out of 5.

Saturday, November 08, 2014

Living History by Hillary Rodham Clinton (Book Review #104 of 2014)

I wanted to read Mrs. Clinton's first memoir before reading Hard Choices. Years ago, I read a couple biographies of her, which made some controversial claims but included a few more facts and timeline checks than this memoir did.

It's a memoir, so you don't expect it to be soul-divulging, but her account is so whitewashed as to be almost unbelievable. Yes, all the investigations into her family's finances and personal lives by Republicans was unfair, but they also uncovered corruption and Clinton associates like Webb Hubble went to prison. Hillary writes that was "shocked" to find that her former partner was actually guilty of the charges leveled against him. So, while she blasts the entire investigation as a political game she hardly acknowledges that it uncovered crimes committed under her nose.

President Clinton told Monica Lewinsky that he'd made a concerted effort to remain faithful to Hillary after he turned 40. This indicates that he was not faithful previously, and we now know that his rendezvous with Ms. Lewinsky was only made possible by the Republican-led government shutdown that caused non-essential handlers to be out of the White House; Mrs. Clinton had made sure staffers knew to deal with Bill's "woman problem." None of that makes it into the memoir, she's shocked to find that Bill cheated on her, and spends little time reflecting on what an abuse of power it is for a boss to start a relationship with an unpaid intern. This whole account is so whitewashed, biographers will have fun with it a century from now.

That said, Clinton has had a remarkable career. She recounts her involvement making policy ranging from healthcare reform, CHIP,  welfare reform (which alienated her former friends on the previous two issues), and women's rights. I found her friendship with Jackie Kennedy interesting, and she got to witness plenty firsthand as a quasi-ambassador, from abused women in Africa to dying AIDS patients in Southeast Asia. This comes across well in the book.

However, there is nothing in here about her management or leadership styles. How did she choose and develop her staff? What books influenced her thinking? How would she manage a government agency, let alone a White House? None of that is evident in the book (do only Republicans include such things in their memoirs, it seems to be a trend).

So, this was a good recap of the Clinton White House through the eyes of the First Lady, and a little bit of info about her successful Senate run, but not many details. 2 stars out of 5

Friday, November 07, 2014

Sermon of the Week (11/2 - 11/8, 2014) Bill Johnson (Bethel Church Redding) on Missions

I've noticed that several churches are in missions-promoting seasons, perhaps gearing up for Christmas offerings. This sermon is titled "Prosperity with a Purpose: Missions (Part 1)" and was delivered by Bill Johnson on 10/19.You may not like Johnson's theology or style, but he makes some good points in regards to missions. One aspect I like is that he describes how adopts a local business and an international business, praying for them and working with them to be Great Commission companies.He prays for Christians to develop patents, inventions, books, dramas, etc. that can be used to further the Kingdom. I've known very few pastors think of that.

Johnson looks at how the early church had to be scattered from Jerusalem in order to fulfill the Great Commission. They perhaps thought they should fulfill Jesus' commands by reaching Jersualem and THEN Judea, Samaria, the ends of the earth. But "the light that shines the furthest always shines brightest at home" - in other words, aim abroad and your impact will be made at home as well.

He also describes his giving habits, how he divides over 20% of his income between local church, missions, and the poor.

What "mantles of breakthrough" are, I don't know, but the entire sermon is worth checking out. Enjoy.

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

The Message of the Old Testament by Mark Dever (Book Review #103 of 2014)

The Message of the Old Testament: Promises Made by Mark Dever

This is a collection of sermon overviews on each book of the Old Testament that Dever preached at Capitol Hill Baptist Church some years ago. I read them while reading through the OT chronologically, and I found the sermons helpful to read as I started each new book. In most cases, Dever zooms out and breaks the book down into logical sections, finding main points from each section. He also provides some historical context and the book's relation in time to other books, this is helpful when looking at the minor prophets. Dever's sermons are fairly lengthy, he does not subscribe to Alistair Begg's notion that an expository sermon should be delivered in under 30 minutes. Perhaps most helpful are the study questions at the end, they are very thought-provoking/challenging.  The sermons are intended for his local congregation, so there is some context there as well-- plenty of references to New England, for example. In many cases, Dever avoids getting into the meaning of prophecy or relating various viewpoints. The sermon on Zechariah was, according to him, his first on the book. The leadership sermon on Daniel is quite good. Dever does a good job of finding Jesus in the Old Testament, particularly. Apparently at Capitol Hill if the morning sermon is OT, the evening one will be a parallel passage in the NT-- at least that was his stated practice when he was preaching these.

I highlighted dozens of passages, too many to list here. I give it 4 stars out of 5. It is just one guy's sermons, after all.

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

Why I hate NASCAR's new championship format

Professional sports tend to decide champions more scientifically than the NCAA does, by having a sample size of N > 1. The NHL, NBA, and MLB all have best-of-seven series, which is better at determining who is truly better than a one-and-done system like March Madness. While the NFL is one-and-done, there is a larger playoff system and the teams play more games that generate a larger sample size to make the bracket, so it's still more "accurate" than its college counterpart.

NASCAR used to be similar as cumulative points on the entire season determined the overall champion-- a large body of work. That got boring, so The Chase created some drama by separating the top 10-12 drivers after a large body of work and having them battle it out in points over the last 10 races. That, apparently, got boring enough to change the format yet again to what I consider to be the most unscientific method of all.

NASCAR created a system where a driver who finishes behind someone in 35 consecutive races, but then finishes the best in the 36th race, is crowned "champion."To make it worse, there are "elimination rounds" so that if one driver has a bad couple of races-- out of 36-- in a round he is eliminated and no longer eligible to win. NASCAR said that it wanted to put more importance on actually winning the race.

Perversely, the result is that going into the final two races one of the drivers with the weakest resumes-- and no wins-- just might become champion. Check out the following ranking of NASCAR drivers by Jeff Sagarin, using finishing spot, number of drivers in a race, and how many races driven:

                        RATING  1st 2nd 3rd 4th 5th  6-10 11-20 RACES  HI  LO
 1 Jeff Gordon           83.88    4   7   0   1   1     8     7    34   1  39
 2 Brad Keselowski       81.47    6   4   4   1   0     3     7    34   1  39
 3 Joey Logano           81.29    5   0   2   7   3     4     8    34   1  40
 4 Dale Earnhardt Jr.    75.08    4   3   2   0   3     7     8    34   1  43
 5 Kevin Harvick         74.46    3   6   1   1   1     6     9    34   1  42
 6 Jimmie Johnson        70.32    4   1   3   2   2     7     4    34   1  42
 7 Matt Kenseth          66.58    0   2   3   5   2     8     7    34   2  42
 8 Kyle Larson           61.93    0   3   2   1   2    10     9    34   2  43
 9 Kyle Busch            59.63    1   3   3   1   1     6     9    34   1  42
10 Carl Edwards          59.01    2   0   0   1   4     8    12    34   1  41

Now look at NASCAR's Top 8 drivers, the top 4 of which will advance according to results in the next race:
1. Joey Logano
2. Denny Hamlin
3. Ryan Newman
4. Jeff Gordon
5. Matt Kenseth
6. Carl Edwards
7. Brad Keselowski
8. Kevin Harvick

Ryan Newman is 12th on Sagarin's list-- he has just four top 5 finishes on the season, his highest finish in a single race is 3rd place. Yet, he is highly likely to advance to the final championship race. Denny Hamlin is a little more respectable at 11th on Sagarin's list, he has six top 5 finishes and a win.

Yet drivers like Keselowski, Dale Jr., and Jimmie Johnson who have been highly successful (Johnson won yesterday after being eliminated) all season are ineligible for the championship due to two consecutive bad races during a 3-race elimination.

It's amateur hour at NASCAR, and I think it's ridiculous. I suspect NASCAR will have to keep this format for a few years in order to make it seem credible and to save face. I doubt NASCAR consulted any statisticians or economists in re-inventing this year's Chase format, and I suspect it will cost them fans. 

Monday, November 03, 2014

Lawrence in Arabia by Scott Anderson (Book Review #102 of 2014)

Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East.
Only 10 of the almost 1000 reviews on Amazon are one-star, and some of those appear to be erroneously awarded. The magic of this book is that Scott Anderson chronicles the tales of multiple characters whose paths occasionally cross, all of whom influenced the outcome of World War I, shaped the lasting imprint of the West on the Middle East, and were party to the establishment of an eventually independent Jewish state in Palestine. While much of the book focuses on T.E. Lawrence as seen through his own memoir, biographers, and contemporaries, Anderson also tells the lesser-known accounts of Aaron Aarohnson, William Yale, Curt Prüfer, Ahmed Djemal Pasha, King Faisal and Mark Sykes. The book is important in retelling the history of the Levant during World War I. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan recently referenced T.E. Lawrence and the current crisis in Syria as the result of the West's failed policies in the Middle East after WWI, so this book is quite relevant.

Aaron Aaronsohn was a Romanian Jew whose parents emigrated to Palestine to farm. The settlements were usually sponsored by rich Jewish benefactors who dictated how the colony was to be run. It's important to remember that "Zionists" were not a united group-- some just wanted to moderately repopulate Palestine with Jews, some wanted to live under Ottoman rule and not displace the Arab majority, others wanted to live under protection of England and the West, while others wanted an independent Jewish state. When war broke out, many of the Jews in Palestine remained loyal to the Ottomans and could not support the Entente powers which included Russia, from which many of the Jews had fled during decades of of pogroms. Agricultural output of the Jewish colonies was poor, and Aaronsohn was selected and sponsored by a Rothschild to study agronomy in Europe and later returned to Palestine and started revolutionary practices that greatly increased farming output. He became famous worldwide for discovering and re-discovering various species of plants. Operating on his own, Aaronsohn eventually embraced the Zionist cause and developed a network of spies called Nili. After World War I began, he was instrumental in spreading pro-Jewish propaganda through telegrams and travels to the West. When Djemal Pasha evacuated Palestine ahead of battle with the English, Aaronsohn spread exaggerated claims of pogroms and lynchings of Jews, even though history records no such evils occurred. The world was already aware of atrocities committed when the Ottomans deported its Armenian and foreign populations, and atrocities against Jews was seen as a step too far. These telegrams reached influential Americans such as Chief Justice Louis Brandeis and swayed public sentiment toward Palestine. When the spy network was uncovered, Aaronsohn's sister--a leader in the group with wide European connections-- was tortured and executed. The exposure of the network was partly the result of bungling by the British.

William Yale was an American employee of Standard Oil who traveled in the Middle East, under false pretenses, searching for oil and opportunity. Standard Oil was hoping to make money selling oil to both the Turks and the Allies after war broke out. After the U.S. entered the war, Yale's documentation of Middle Eastern geography and political affairs proved valuable to the U.S. State Department who enlisted him as an intelligence agent. Yale was the forerunner of American espionage through its private sector, particularly oil. Yale later published an account of his time in the Middle East that I'd like to read.

Curt Prüfer was a German diplomat stationed in Cairo who shared with many Germans a vision of a pan-Islamic revolt against the Allies supported by Germany. He was an advisor both to the German government and Djemal Pasha. Germany was crucial in building the railways and other infrastructure inside the Ottoman empire, as well as supplying academics to Turkish universities and doing much of the early archaeology on various ancient sites. Kaiser Wilhelm II wanted greater German Eurasian influence, a dream that seems silly in retrospect today. Prüfer developed his own spy ring, putting him in direct competition with Aaronsohn. Obviously, Prüfer was on the losing side so you see him managing both shrinking territory and the increasing disconnect of the German government from reality on the ground.

Djemal Pasha's full biographyis not given by Anderson but he served as the governor of the Syrian region, including over Palestine. He was one of three generals to wrest control of the Ottoman government before the war. After a locust swarm of biblical proportions wiped out crops in the region in 1915, Djemal enlisted the help of the agronomist Aaronsohn, allowing Aaronsohn to gain favor and intelligence as he worked. Anderson writes of conflicting histories regarding Pasha. On the one hand, he oversaw harsh crackdowns on Arabs during the Arab Revolt. He is blamed (and was later assassinated) for many atrocities against Armenians, but Anderson writes that Pasha was intially disgusted by their treatment and disgreed with the powers in Istanbul who initiated the forced deportations. The atrocities were committed after the failed British-led attack on Gallipoli and convinced many Ottoman Jews to flee for fear that they could be next. the pasha's legacy here is mixed; Djemal supposedly forbid harsh treatment or the killing of Armenians but later forbid even photgraphing them, presumably while atrocities were being committed.

Of course, the greatest amount of the book is devoted to T.E. Lawrence. Lawrence's Seven Pillars of Wisdom (my review) is a prerequisite for Anderson's book along with the classic Lawrence of Arabia film, as Anderson quotes extensively from Lawrence's work while also critiquing it based on accounts by Lawrence's contemporaries, along with letters and journal entries by Lawrence. Lawrence's early endavors and fascination with Ottoman Syria gave him unique insights that served him well. Before fighting there with Arabs, he had hiked thousands of miles in Syria and done archaeological work. He is alleged to have fallen in love with Dahoum aka Salim Ahmed, a young waterboy he hired in Syria, whose well-being supposedly motivated him to push for Syrian Arab independence (Dahoum died of typhus in 1916, much to Lawrence's dismay). Lawrence's path crosses with that of the other characters, including Mark Sykes of the infamous Sykes-Picot agreement that effectively betrayed the Arabs and surprised the British command in Cairo. Lawrence generally disagrees vehemently with the others and remains contemptuous. Interestingly, Lawrence betrays the secret of Sykes-Picot early on to Faisal Ali, who he fought alongside. This was an interesting act of treason by Lawrence that Anderson notes gets overlooked by biographers-- after only 4 months in Arabia, Lawrence was so invested in the Arab cause that he was willing to risk everything in disclosing this secret. Lawrence is particularly glad he did so after the 1917 Balfour Declaration by the British that made it official state policy to establish a Jewish state in Palestine. This monumental move was partly the result of fervor stirred by Aaronsohn and served to enrage many Arabs fighting alongside the West. Had Lawrence not already disclosed Sykes-Picot the dual revelations may have led to a bloody revolt. As a footnote to the history, the Wuhabbist Muslims led by al Saud were most incensed by the declaration and King Faisal's cooperation with the West in allowing it.

Lawrence advised the British commanders to bypass a bloody war for Palestine and invade Syria instead. His commanders ignore him, and 50,000 lives are lost "liberating" Palestine from the Arabs. Lawrence's academic expertise in medieval warfare gave him insights into how the war could be fought with Faisal's camel-mounted troops. The capture of Aqaba as well as the varying accounts of what happened to Lawrence when captured in Daraa are examined pretty thoroughly by the author. The West's promises and reneging to the Arabs, whose help they desperately needed, are also well chronicled by Anderson. Faisal was in position to receive overtures both from the British and the Ottomans, who began to promise more independence to the Arabs in an attempt to wrest them away from the British. The British, in turn made last-minute promises of greater independence upon hearing false rumors of an Arab-Ottoman deal.

Several of these characters attend the peace conference at Versailles, and all of them leave disgusted at the outcomes. How this later played out in world affairs is documented briefly by Anderson at the end. I recommend Paul Ehrlich's recent book Inside Syria (my review) for an abbreviated look at this time period in Syrian history as well. I give this book 5 stars out of 5. Fantastic, very informative, and very entertaining read if you are interested in Middle Eastern or World War I history. It's very relevant to today's battles in Syria and I suspect the book will remain relevant for decades to come.