Book Review: New Girl at Church

Questions. We all have them. About life, about our world, about why things are the way that they are. Asking questions is an important part of life and an integral part of learning about something new or unfamiliar. This is especially true when it comes to questions about faith. There are a lot of truth claims out there about God, the world, and where we’re all headed. How do we know which claims are right? And what does it mean to follow this Jesus guy?

In New Girl at Church, Stacey Martin offers a questions-based explanation of Christianity from the perspective of a new believer. This is not your standard-fare work of apologetics determined to overwhelm questions with philosophical answers, nor is it a fluffy account of how someone very different than you had a crazy Jesus experience that miraculously transformed their life. No, New Girl at Church is a story how someone with real questions found real answers in Jesus. It’s a story that’s happening all around us—a story that can happen to you too.

Short, accessible, funny, and engaging, New Girl at Church speaks from the perspective of someone who was a skeptic of organized religion for over 30 years. Most chapters center around a specific question that those unfamiliar with Christianity or new to the whole following Jesus thing often ask. It’s a refreshingly honest approach to speaking about faith, an honest articulation of questions, struggles, ups and downs, and the realities that face anyone hoping to find answers to their questions.

One of the best parts about New Girl at Church is how Stacey largely avoids Christianese or delving into secondary issues that might distract from the core of faith. She poses and addresses real questions asked by real people. Throughout the book, she weaves in her own story of God’s grace and transformation, making this more than just an explanation of faith—it’s a personal story of God’s faithfulness and pursuit too.

The first half of the book is probably best suited for those who are not currently following Jesus, as it addresses questions like “who is Jesus?” and “how does following Jesus change your life?” It’s a real, sometimes raw account of how Stacey asked these questions and came to answers. The second half of New Girl at Church is best intended for those who’ve made the decision to give Jesus a try. These chapters focus on connecting to a church community, the importance of baptism, how family life changes when you follow Jesus, the centrality of forgiveness, and the importance of digging in and living our faith.

I highly recommend New Girl at Church for anyone asking about Jesus or what it means to follow Him. Especially if you’ve tried more formal apologetics books and found yourself looking for a more real and authentic perspective, give New Girl at Church a try. One final thought is that this book would make a particularly valuable tool for churches who are looking to provide relational resources for those exploring faith.

Book Review: Galatians: Freedom Through God’s Grace

Paul’s letter to the Galatians has long held a place of importance for those seeking to understand the power of the Gospel. One of the first books of the New Testament to be written, Galatians forcefully presents many of the Apostle Paul’s most central ideas and themes of grace and justification, displaying in brief, impassioned terms the theological categories and concepts that would find later expression in his letters to Rome and Corinth. If one hopes to understand the message of Christianity, Galatians offers a worthy starting point.

It was therefore with eager anticipation that I engaged Phillip Long’s Galatians: Freedom Through God’s Grace. And indeed, I walked away informed, encouraged, and impressed.

This is no technical commentary thickly layered with Greek exegesis, nor is it the kind of sweeping systematic commentary that one might expect a preacher to regularly consult. Rather, this is a reader’s commentary, the kind of book that any inquisitive Christian mind can bring with them as they thoughtfully engage Galatians.

Long’s prose is clear and compelling; his structure, simple and easy to follow. Readers are informed, without being overwhelmed, by historical details, the nuances of Greek, and the history of scholarship. Long includes snippets of those things, of course, but in ways that illuminate the text rather than insulate it from understanding.

The commentary proceeds section by section, with each section’s chapter including an introduction, conclusion, and discussion questions. Each section is divided into pericopes, and important aspects of each pericope are commented on. Footnotes to secondary literature are limited, but helpful when included. As with other commentaries, this one is best read next to an open Bible; unlike many other commentaries, however, you can actually consult this book section by section alongside your reading of Scripture.

Especially noteworthy is Long’s treatment of the chronology of Galatians and Acts. For those invested in understanding any biblical writing, there are few pieces of context more important than the audience and setting of a writing. In a reasoned but non-argumentative manner, Long suggests that Paul wrote Galatians before the Jerusalem Council described in Acts 15. While this is not a majority position among contemporary New Testament scholars, the book’s argument is clear and compelling, and Long suggests a chronology that provides useful answers for some of the otherwise difficult parts of Paul’s letter.

In short, I want more commentaries like this; commentaries that are at once brief and helpful for the busy academic or pastor, while also accessible for the lay reader. This is the kind of slim book that’s worth its weight in gold for those who are engaging Galatians, whether for the first time or the hundredth. In terms of audience, this is not a commentary for the technical preacher or graduate student working in the minutiae of Galatians. However, it is an exceedingly helpful volume for the vast majority of people who want to better understand Galatians, be they pastors, small group leaders, or new Christians. I plan to use this commentary in the future as I lead groups through Galatians, and I know readers of all backgrounds and purposes will benefit greatly from Long’s insights.

Phillip J. Long, Galatians: Freedom through God’s Grace (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2019), 156 pages. I received a complimentary copy of this volume in exchange for my honest review. All opinions expressed are my own.

Book Review: Irresistible (Stanley)

Once upon a time, there existed a version of Christianity that was irresistible. Over the years, however, errors and accretions have piled up, reducing to a shadow what was once a robust proclamation of the Good News of Jesus. But now, there’s a way that the Church can return to its roots and make the gospel great again.

No, this isn’t another book about the corruptions of Catholicism that the Protestant Reformation overcame; it’s the story of American Protestantism, which has sadly lost its way in the wilderness of the Old Testament and a “Bible-before-Jesus” approach to sharing Jesus. Continue reading

Book Review: The Old Testament Case for Nonviolence (Fleischer)

Did God command Israel to commit atrocities when conquering the Promised Land? Does He approve when people go to war in His name? Is the God of the Old Testament truly a homicidal maniac, as some have said?

In The Old Testament Case for Nonviolence, Matthew Curtis Fleischer tackles these questions—and much more—with a thorough and contextual reading of the Old and New Testaments. Fleischer marshals evidence that says no to these queries, at least in a nuanced sense. His chief argument in defense of God’s character is the concept of incremental revelation: that in order to best reveal Himself (in the person of Jesus for the work of the Church), God incrementally revealed His ethical expectations and character throughout the Old and New Testaments. Continue reading

In the Mail: An Anomalous Jew

image1Upon arrival at Saint Louis University this morning, I was pleased to find Michael Bird’s An Anomalous Jew: Paul among Jews, Greeks, and Romans (Eerdmans, 2016). I am most thankful to Eerdmans for sending this my way, and look forward to reading and reviewing what promises to be a stellar read.

From the Eerdman’s catalogue: “Though Paul is often lauded as the first great Christian theologian and a champion for Gentile inclusion in the church, in his own time he was universally regarded as a strange and controversial person. In this book Pauline scholar Michael Bird explains why.

An Anomalous Jew presents the figure of Paul in all his complexity with his blend of common and controversial Jewish beliefs and a faith in Christ that brought him into conflict with the socio-religious scene around him. Bird elucidates how the apostle Paul was variously perceived — as a religious deviant by Jews, as a divisive figure by Jewish Christians, as a purveyor of dubious philosophy by Greeks, and as a dangerous troublemaker by the Romans. Readers of this book will better understand the truly anomalous shape of Paul’s thinking and worldview.”

Reflections on The Supremacy of God in Preaching

The Supremacy of God in Preaching (Piper)John Piper’s classic The Supremacy of God in Preaching offers an outline of principles for preaching, centering on the need for preachers to recognize (and apply) the supremacy of God in their theology and practice. The revised and expanded edition contains three emphases: why God should be supreme in preaching; how God should be supreme in preaching (building from Edward’s life and theology); and that God is still supreme in preaching (additions and further reflections after thirty-three years of ministry and preaching). Continue reading

Book Review: The Pauline Effect (Strawbridge)

The Pauline EffectWhile the influence of Pauline writings on early Christianity remains widely recognized, few studies investigate the particulars of Paul’s theological and exegetical influence on ante-Nicene Christianity. Beginning this immense task of studying the specific reception histories of Pauline pericopes is Jennifer Strawbridge’s The Pauline Effect, winner of the 2014 SBL-De Gruyter Prize for Biblical Studies and Reception History. This volume examines how Paul and his letters—particularly the texts of 1 Corinthians 2.6-16, Ephesians 6.10-17, 1 Corinthians 15.50-58, and Colossians 1.15-20—shaped early Christian theology and practice. Among the contributions of this volume is the argument that early Christian use of Paul reveals definitive development of Christian formation as “progress from one level of wisdom to another” (4). Continue reading

Book Review: Who Made Early Christianity? (Gager)

9780231174046Contemporary readers of the New Testament are often struck by the overwhelming influence of the Apostle Paul. After not appearing at all in the gospels and barely appearing in the first half of Acts, he comes to dominate most of the rest of the New Testament canon. Despite his popularity, however, Paul remains a controversial figure, the historical interpretations of his thought incredibly varied and the history of his influence remaining uneven across time. Nowhere is this contestation more evident than in current Pauline Studies, that field of New Testament and Biblical Studies which focuses on understanding the life and theology of the Apostle to the Gentiles. In contribution to this realm of inquiry comes John G. Gager’s latest monograph, Who Made Early Christianity? The Jewish Lives of the Apostle Paul (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015), which pushed back against conceptions of Paul and early Christianity which simultaneously sound the triumph of Christianity and the decimation of Judaism. Continue reading

Book Review: Paul’s Message and Ministry in Covenant Perspective (Hafemann)

Paul's Message and Ministry in Covenant Perspective (Hafemann)There has been no shortage of scholarship on Paul in the last 150 years, as theologians and biblical scholars alike have taken up writing about Paul en masse. Amid the voluminous tomes on the Apostle, certain voices ring out more clearly than the others, beckoning readers to take up Paul with fresh insight. Scott J. Hafemann’s Paul’s Message and Ministry in Covenant Perspective, collected essays on Paul’s ministry and message from the perspective of covenantal theology stands as such a work, providing theological and exegetical insight from across twenty-five years of research on the Apostle Paul and his letters to the church at Corinth. Continue reading

Book Review: Guilt by Association (Smith)

Guilt by Association (Smith)Since the publication of Walter Bauer’s Rechtgläubigkeit und Ketzerie im ältesten Christentum in 1934, the issue of discerning orthodoxy and heresy in earliest Christianity has taken on renewed importance. Amidst this reinvigorated study, however, scholars have by-and-large failed to appropriately consider the insights of Christian heretical catalogues, or so argues Geoffrey S. Smith in Guilt by Association: Heresy Catalogues in Early Christianity. In this volume, Smith investigates some of the most powerful weapons in the early Church’s battles for legitimacy and authority, arguing that heresy catalogues should be approached as sources for understanding early Christian boundary-definitions and claims of orthodoxy. Continue reading