Category Archives: Book Review

Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes: A Reflection

by W. Jackson Watts

Recently I read Tom Wolfe’s latest work, The Kingdom of Speech. Wolfe is well-known and controversial journalist who has authored fiction and non-fiction works on a range of subjects. In the aforementioned title, a sort of exploration into philosophy, science, linguistics, and history, Wolfe devotes significant attention to the story of Daniel L. Everett.

Everett was a missionary sent by the Summer Institute of Linguistics to the Pirahās (pronounced pee-da-HAN) Indians in the Amazonian jungle. I had heard of Everett before and discussed his story with a Brazilian friend, though I did not know the whole story. What I did know was so fascinating to me that I picked up a copy of his memoir, Don’t Sleep There Are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle (Pantheon Books, 2008).

Everett’s primary objective was to learn the Pirahās language—one of the most complicated ones known to man—and produce a successful translation of the Bible. So at the age of 26, Everett made his first journey to the Pirahās. He and his family would spend large portions of the next 30 years working among these unique people deep in the heart of the Amazon.

Everett was well-suited for this specific mission as he had shown himself to be an exemplary student of language during his undergraduate and graduate education. He studied at Moody Bible Institute, but he also would earn his masters in linguistics and a doctorate at UNICAMP (a large Brazilian university). In more recent years he has held positions at many universities, including Illinois State University, the University of Pittsburgh, and the University of Manchester.

Everett’s Significant Contribution

This book is significant for several reasons. First, as Christians deeply committed to global evangelism, we can appreciate someone devoting most of their life to an obscure, extremely dangerous place (hence the book’s title), doing the hard work of learning and translation in order to put God’s Word in the tongue of a people. Moreover, though there had been a few previous missionaries to this tribe, none had been successful. Everett notes at the time of his book’s publication that there had never been a known conversion at any period in the history of their tribe! (269).

A second reason the book is significant is because it is more about language and culture than it is the spiritual task of missions. The book interweaves the Everett family’s story with reflections on different theories about linguistics, and how various theories had sought to explain the phenomenon of language. How can Darwinism account for the unique complexities of human language? This question, the subject of Wolfe’s Kingdom of Speech, also pervades academic discussions of language. Since this is also a community Everett had been part of for years, his book discusses this issue in great detail.

Everett contends that the language of the Pirahās actually undermines the dominant thesis of modern linguistic theory, promoted by Noam Chomsky. Chomsky, now 88, is the most influential figure in the field of linguistics not only in America, but perhaps the world. Chomsky is famous for his notion of Universal Grammar. In essence, this theory asserts that language is primarily genetic in origins, not primarily cultural (as many others believe, including Everett). Grammar, or how language works/fits together, arises from a set of structures innate to human beings. While languages across the world are very diverse, there are some common elements that show language to be inherent to the human genetic make-up.

Because Everett has been able to document how the Pirahās language does not fit the paradigm advanced by Chomsky and others in the field, his research has caused quite a bit of a stir in academic linguistics.

What’s Theology Got to Do With It?

From a theological perspective, it may be tempting to simply say we believe that humans are made in the image of God, and leave it at that. However, there are numerous ways we could deepen our study of what the Bible says about humanity and consider how this might intersect with what we believe about language.

Some have suggested that language is one entailment of being made in God’s image. Others have suggested it is the central meaning of being in His image. Even Wolfe makes several mentions of this particular doctrine in his book and how it relates to this larger discussion of what humans are like.

One thing is for sure: linguists, anthropologists, philosophers, and scientists of all kinds are likely to arrive at different conclusions about language if they operate out of an evolutionary framework.

Intellectuals working from such a framework are forced to try and explain all human phenomena in either cultural or biological terms, or both. Yet in the end they will either simply double-down on the conclusion that human beings are nothing special, just highly-evolved primates. Or they will try to preserve a sense of human uniqueness among all other species, but lack the metaphysical grounding for this belief.

There is much more to Everett’s book that merits discussion here, but I’ll conclude with one final observation. A rather sad reason why the book is significant (SPOILER ALERT) is that in the end Everett tells of his departure from Christianity. This will likely be the only “missionary biography” one ever reads with this conclusion.

As difficult as it was for me to read the conclusion of the book, I think the reasoning he gives is a sobering cautionary tale. I’ll leave it to others who read to glean lessons from this. To me, it is a tale of how increasingly gradually bracketing out theology and communion with God from anthropological and linguistic research can make a person intellectually vulnerable to the already-present spiritual vulnerabilities of life in the world, especially on the mission field.

Simply put, if Christian doctrine is always revised in light of the latest scientific consensus on a particular question, and if one does not carefully guard their walk with the Lord, they will find that the complexities of life will gradually erode the commitments of their soul. Everett was confronted for years with the hardships of life in the jungle, the contentment of a lost tribe to continue rejecting Jesus, and trying to untangle the mysteries of language and culture. This is a tall order for anyone.

Although most of us will continue to dwell in a familiar Western world, we should recognize that there are many complex burdens in serving God and understanding His world. Therefore, we must maintain spiritual vigilance in the fulfillment of our ministries, regardless of where they take us.

 

Arminian and Baptist: A Review

by Theological Commission

Occasionally members of the Commission for Theological Integrity publish articles, essays, book reviews, and full-length books. As this occurs we hope to keep readers abreast of these developments, especially if they will be useful and informative. We see this as an extension of our work of being an effective Commission.

Recently we learned of a new review of one of Dr. Matt Pinson’s most recent books, Arminian and Baptist: Explorations in a Theological Tradition (Randall House, 2015), written by Kevin Jackson. This review appeared at the website for the Society of Evangelical Arminians (SEA).

Readers can find out more about this interesting and eclectic fellowship of self-identified Arminians here and here. The Commission (nor the National Association of Free Will Baptists) have a formal relationship with SEA. However, there are some who have been associated with both the NAFWB and SEA. They occasionally reference Free Will Baptists and Free Will Baptist authors.

Even for those who have not yet read Arminian and Baptist, this review will provide a brief overview of the chapter content. Also, the reader’s self-idenfiying as a Wesleyan Arminian (and reviewing the book from that perspective) gives something of a window into some of the distinctions between Reformed or Classical Arminianism and Wesleyan Arminianism that aren’t merely perceived, but actual.

We leave it to readers to make their own judgments about the accuracy of the Mr. Jackson’s assertions and perspective. Readers can also find other material on Pinson’s book here, here, and here.

 

Memento Mori

by Randy Corn

Recently while reading Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs, I came across the Latin expression memento mori. Isaacson explains that when a Roman general returned victorious from battle he was given a Triumph, a grand parade, where many gifts and honors were bestowed upon him.  Throughout all of this, a servant would follow the general repeating, “Memento mori,” which loosely translates into “Remember that you have to die.” This is from the chapter in Isaacson’s book where the cancer diagnosis, which would eventually take Jobs’s life, is first mentioned.

The writer of Hebrews reminds us, “It is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment” (Heb. 9:27). We all observe the fact that people die, and yet in spite of Scripture and experience most of us fail to consider our own mortality—that is until a doctor brings us a life threatening diagnosis.

About a year ago that happened to me. It put me on an unfamiliar path. I had been the care-giver throughout my pastoral career; now I was the one being cared for. Now I was the one being prayed for, not the one praying. As is typical for me, I began to look around for books to help me on this journey. I found some that have been particularly helpful, and I believe would be a resource for both the suffering and those who want to understand and minister comfort. Most of these are not Christian books, but they are honest in picturing the struggle of men and women wrestling with their own mortality.

  1. When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalinithi, Random House, 2016

This book was recommended to me by my neurologist and is one of the best written books I have come across. The author, who was a neurosurgeon in training, tells of being diagnosed with terminal cancer and how he spent the 22 months until his death. As a doctor he had a clinical view of death, but when it was his life ebbing away his perspective slowly changed. Readers can find themselves somewhere on that learning curve.

  1. Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom, Broadway Books, 1997

This book details the story of a college professor who is dying of ALS.  He reconnects with one of his favorite students from years earlier who had gone on to be a successful sports writer. The two get together each Tuesday for the professor to talk about life and death. The reader feels as though he has taken a seat beside the bed of a wise man who wants to impart that wisdom before it is too late.

  1. The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch with Jeffrey Zaslow, Hatchette Books, 2008

Pausch was a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon University. He developed cancer, and though he tried to beat it with a radical procedure, he did not.  He knew from about six months out that his death was imminent. This led to what the university called his “last lecture.” It is a tradition at many schools for a retiring professor to give such a talk.  Pausch was extended this opportunity and took it. The result was a memoir of sorts, packed with common sense rules for life. If there is such a thing as an upbeat book about death, this is it.

  1. The View from a Hearse by Joe Bayly, Clearnote Press, 1969

This book is one of the many recommendations made by Warren Wiersbe from his book, Walking with the Giants. It is from his chapter on the “Minister as Comforter.” I can see why he recommended this book. Bayly is a Christian minister who has served in both local church and Christian college settings, but his understanding of this subject is not merely theoretical. Beyond ministering to the dying and their families, he has lost three of his own children.  He discusses such subjects as praying for healing and gives some very practical advice about counseling the dying and those who love them.

There are many more books on this subject, some of which I have read. But these are the ones that I feel have the most potential benefit both for the dying and for those who minister to them. Only Bayly’s book has a clear Christian perspective on death, but the others are what might be called examples of common grace. They have wisdom and even inspiration to share with us.

A Note on the Passing of Theologian Thomas Oden

by W. Jackson Watts

I was saddened, along with many others, to learn of the recent passing of Thomas Oden. Oden was arguably the most prolific, conservative Methodist theologian alive at the time of his death this past Thursday. Mark Tooley, a colleague of his, has published a short tribute to Oden at the Gospel Coalition website.

I know other Commission members and readers of this blog have their own experience with the writings of Oden, as do I. Off the top of my head, I remember Dr. Kevin Hester’s substantial review of Oden’s How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind in the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society back in 2009 (Vol. 52, No. 1). I also recall many years prior hearing Dr. Pinson mention Oden’s Systematic Theology as well as his contributions to a fuller understanding of Arminianism.

My first encounter with Oden’s work was in a now hard-to-find book entitled No God But God (Moody, 1992), edited by Os Guinness and John Seel. Oden contributed a chapter memorably entitled “On Not Whoring After the Spirit of the Age.” It is still very much worth reading as it narrates the cultural captivity of Christianity, especially as it concerns the intellectual idolatry involved in theological liberalism. He also explains how the spiritual vacuity of liberalism compelled him to move in a different direction, toward what he simply called “Classical Christianity.” This chapter alone nearly led me to Drew University for graduate work, the institution where Oden taught for most of his career.

This argument was essentially the premise of an earlier book of Oden’s, After Modernity….What? Agenda for Theology (Zondervan, 1990). But in my view, the most interesting foray into Oden’s work if one seeks to understand both the man and the guiding force behind all of the work from the middle of his career and onward is to read his memoir, A Change of Heart. I published a review of this book at the Helwys Society Forum in 2015, which can be viewed here. I found it fascinating on so many levels (Most theologians, I think it’s fair to say, never publish memoirs or autobiographies. Rather, people tend to write for them in the form of festschrift). But Oden’s memoir is a real gift to the church, especially for those tempted toward novelty in their search for a theological method in the context of academic life and research.

Another notable contribution that Oden made late in his career is his work as General Editor of the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture series. These commentaries mine the riches of the early to early-medieval church fathers for reflection on Genesis to Revelation. This series also paved the way for the Ancient Christian Doctrine series, and the Ancient Christian Texts series. Oden served as a general editor for these also.

As always, we rejoice in the homecoming of one of God’s children. I also rejoice in the fact that Oden has left the church with such a wealth of resources on classical Christian thought, pastoral care, the thought of John Wesley, African Christianity, and more.

Update (12/19): I have seen where Timothy George has penned a very nice overview of Oden at Christianity Today. Check it out here.

A Book Worth Your Time

by Randy Corn

J. I. Packer: An Evangelical Life. By Leland Ryken. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2015. 413 pp. $16.50 ebook

Few would debate the assertion that J. I. Packer has had a profound impact on the evangelical movement. Some will know that Packer was an Episcopal Priest. Many more will know that he spent his life in theological education, impacting thousands of students over the years. Quite a few more will appreciate that J. I. Packer is one of the most widely read evangelical authors alive today. Ryken’s volume puts all this in perspective for the reader. In his introduction he says, “My goal in writing this biography was to enable my readers to know J. I. Packer and to get a picture of his varied roles and accomplishments. It is the man that I wanted my readers to encounter” (10).

To accomplish this, he wrote the volume in three parts. The first is “The Life.” In the second, one meets “The Man,” and finally, “Lifelong Themes.” It is “The Life” which reads most like a traditional biography. You first encounter a shy, bookish lad who suffered a terrible accident and had to literally wear a helmet to protect his fractured skull for months on end. It is also intriguing to hear the story of how this nominally religious young man came to faith and found a calling while in college.

During his college days he discovered his lifelong love for the Puritans. His introduction to them was a biography of George Whitefield. Packer was drawn to Whitefield because, many years earlier, Whitefield attended the same preparatory school which Packer would graduate from. Packer “later called his reading of this biography a milestone in his spiritual development” (45). Ryken concludes, “In summary, then, the first thing to be said about the Puritan influence in Packer’s life is that it was formative. The Puritans did not transform his life; they formed it. Packer without the Puritans does not exist” (272). Like Whitefield, he would be a committed Anglican, but be thought of as a mainstream evangelical. The Puritan theology of Whitefield would be at the core of Packer’s thinking. He eventually wrote his doctoral dissertation on the soteriology of Richard Baxter.

Readers who are broadly familiar with John R.W. Stott and D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones will be intrigued to see the interplay between these men. Though a lesser man might have felt slighted by both, Packer seemed to go out of his way to keep their disagreements amicable. In fact, the author devotes an entire chapter to how Packer handled controversy. He was never far from one, and yet he was never spoiling for a fight or unwilling to engage to defend an important principle. In the broader evangelical world this would be an important attribute since Packer would be a major proponent of Evangelicals and Catholics Together.

There are times that Ryken gets a bit more detailed than the average reader would like, but Packer has lived a long and eventful life. In concluding this book, I do feel that Ryken achieved his goal; I encountered J. I. Packer.