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Natural Born Heroes | Christopher McDougall

The cover of McDougalls Natural Born HeroesNatural Born Heroes is three books in one. The first book tells the story of how the daring resistance movement on Crete kidnapped a German General and then disappeared. The second book is a study of the hero in Greek mythology, suggesting links between the Greek heroes and modern Cretans. The third book is an autobiographical glimpse into McDougall’s studies in endurance diets and fitness training.

I picked up Natural Born Heroes on the strength of McDougall’s first book, Born to Run. While Born to Run was an inspiring book that actually made me want to run more, his sophomore effort lost me. The World War II story was exciting, but in order to fit the other material in he had to draw it out to an unnatural length. His fascial fitness ideas were exciting, but ended up sounded like fringe science.

While the idea was interesting, the execution left me wishing I could have just read a complete history of the Cretan resistance or a scientific study of endurance training. Both subjects are well worth their own treatment!

McDougall, Christopher. Natural Born Heroes: How a Daring Band of Misfits Mastered the Lost Secrets of Strength and Endurance. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2015.

Heaven Below | Grant Wacker

The cover of Wacker's Heaven BelowHistory slides quickly into myth and legend.

In 1901, Agnes Ozman received the “baptism with tongues” in Charles Fox Parham’s school in Topeka, Kansas. Parham’s own baptism followed quickly. Two years later Parham took his school on the road to Houston where he taught William J. Seymour. Seymour took the message to California where the new movement exploded in 1906.

In Heaven Below, Grant Wacker tells the story of that first generation of American pentecostals. Since almost every new expression of pentecostalism had its corresponding magazine and mailing list, Wacker mined a mountain of primary material to arrive at his nuanced understanding of the pentecostal movement.

Wacker described his overall thesis in one sentence:

The genius of the pentecostal movement lay in its ability to hold two seemingly incompatible impulses in creative tension. (10)

Wacker shows how through a variety of topics (women, tongues, worship, war, testimony, etc.), pentecostals were able to be both primitivists (people who returned to what they considered the New Testament faith) and pragmatists (people who thrived in the world).

Context always influences research and Wacker is up-front with his. He was raised pentecostal but now identifies more broadly as an evangelical Christian. He confesses, however, that “in many ways my heart never left home” (x). He is neither a dispassionate sceptic nor a fawning hagiographer.

Now, a word about the context of this reviewer. I too was raised as a pentecostal and still identify as one—I pastor a Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada church. Wacker’s research opened my eyes to the origin of many of the quirks I have encountered over the years.

While reading Heaven Below, I was alternately inspired by my spiritual ancestors who bragged that “the color line has been washed away in the blood,” and disgusted at Parham’s racist insistence that black evangelist William Seymour sit outside the school by the open window so he could get the teaching without mixing his race with the whites inside. The same feelings held true with many other issues: women in ministry, poverty v. wealth, and pacifism v. war to name a few.

That God did something world-shattering in the early pentecostal movement is beyond question—its effects are still resonating throughout the entire word. I hope pentecostals of our day can take inspiration from our mothers and fathers in the faith while at the same time repudiating the errors that have become clear with the benefit of hindsight.

Wacker, Grant. Heaven Below: Early Pentecostals and American Culture. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001.

Fire from Heaven | Harvey Cox

The cover of Cox's Fire from HeavenFire from Heaven is one massive mea culpa! In 1965 Harvey Cox released The Secular City where he presupposed the arrival of a post-religious age. In the preface to Fire from Heaven, Cox acknowledged that now it is “secularity, not spirituality, that may be headed for extinction” (xv). The growth of worldwide pentecostalism is a major factor in this flip-flop of opinion.

For Cox, pentecostalism represents an outbreak of primal spirituality that had been repressed by the formalism of religion. Through the recovery of primal speech (glossolalia), primal piety (signs and wonders), and primal hope (endtime eschatology), pentecostalism has proven to be the form in which humanity’s latent spiritual desires took shape.

As a container for primal spirituality, pentecostalism is exceedingly adaptable. Cox shows how pentecostalism welcomes liberation theology in Latin America, shamanism in Korea, and even tribal healing practices in Zimbabwe. Far from being an achilles heel, Cox understands this tendency toward religious syncretism as pentecostalism’s great strength.

Fire from Heaven is part spiritual autobiography and part history. Cox’s willingness to pen his own thoughts adds a sense of genuineness to the story. This same autobiographical sense also colors his interpretation. In the chapter “Music Brought Me to Jesus,” Cox developed an extended analogy between jazz music and pentecostalism (Cox is a jazz saxophonist). While some of the points are fitting, there are a couple major flaws with this argument. First, the actual music of pentecostalism has always tended toward simple folk, roots, and rock styles. More importantly, jazz is highly a sophisticated form of music—an ethos in direct contradiction with pentecostalism’s underprivileged roots.

Another obvious flaw in Cox’s book is the way he only criticized North American pentecostalism. His examples deserved the criticism he delivered, but surely a more unbiased view might find reason to critique other expressions of pentecostalism outside the author’s continent.

Cox has delivered a highly readable interesting analysis of global pentecostalism. His central thesis, that pentecostalism is the vehicle for an outburst of primal spirituality, is thought provoking and could very well be true. Time will tell whether his conclusions in Fire from Heaven weather better than Secular City.

Cox, Harvey. Fire from Heaven: The Rise of Pentecostal Spirituality and the Reshaping of Religion in the Twenty-first Century. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 1995.

Azusa Street | Frank Bartleman

The cover of Bartleman's Azusa StreetIn 1906 the Azusa Street revival which launched the modern pentecostal renewal began. It was led by a black preacher, William Seymour. Seymour wrote very little so we rely on the eyewitness journalist and evangelist, Frank Bartleman, for first-hand stories.

Azusa Street is valuable for these stories as well as the practical insight Bartleman demonstrated concerning the moving of the Spirit. He notes, for example, how the revival brought imposters and disrupters out of the woodwork. His response?

We found early in the “Azusa” work that when we attempted to steady the Ark the Lord stopped working. We dared not call the attention of the people too much to the working of the evil. Fear would follow. We could only pray. Then God gave victory. (48)

Consider also his thoughts on church unity and his fear of a Pentecostal party:

Surely a “party spirit” cannot be “Pentecostal.” There can be no divisions in a true Pentecost. To formulate a separate body is but to advertise our failure, as people of God. (68)

Unfortunately, the insight of Bartleman is difficult to read because of the self-centredness of his narrative. Despite Seymour’s leadership of Azusa Street, Bartleman’s book is focused solely on his own exploits.

Bartleman also has an unfailing certainty that trumps any introspection. Consider the account of his family’s move from Long Beach to Pasadena:

We should have moved one month earlier, but a party occupied the house and would not move, though God called them to Sacramento. Refusing to obey God they kept us out, and caused much suffering all around. They confessed their wrong later. Thus they missed the mind of the Lord for themselves, got out of divine order, and suffered much, besides causing great suffering to others. (152)

Every time there is conflict in the book, the other party is in the wrong and Bartleman writes himself into the right. Azusa Street is a gripping first-hand account of the early pentecostal renewal, so long as you can stomach the author’s bias!

—Frank Bartleman, Azusa Street: The Roots of Modern-day Pentecost (S. Plainfield, NJ: Bridge Publishing, Inc., 1980).

Stranger Than We Can Imagine | John Higgs

The cover of Higgs' Stranger Than We Can ImagineThe twentieth century can be understood as the loss of all omphaloi.

What are omphaloi, you might ask? An omphalos is the central hub of something. For ancient Israel, for example, the Holy of Holies in the Temple on Mount Zion was the omphalos of the world. It was the place where heaven connected with earth. The twentieth century is littered with fallen omphaloi.

  • Einstein’s relativity theories destroyed the omphalos of a fixed place.
  • War destroyed the omphalos of national emperors.
  • Freud’s psychology destroyed the omphalos of the rational mind.
  • The sexual revolution destroyed the omphalos of traditional morality.

John Higgs is equally adept at explaining quantum mechanics as he is with evaluating the impact of Super Mario Bros. on Postmodernism—and he does all of this with a great sense of humour. Here’s how he explains the counter-intuitive laws of the quantum world:

The quantum world is like the fun your teenage children and their friends have in their room. You know it exists because you can hear the shrieks and laughter throughout the house, but if you pop your head around the door, it immediately evaporates and leaves only a bunch of silent self-conscious adolescents. A parent cannot see this fun in much the same way that the sun cannot observe a shadow. And yet, it exists. (119)

Stranger Than We Can Imagine is a brilliant analysis of the twentieth century. For me, Higgs only runs into trouble when he gets to the present. With all the traditional omphaloi fallen, we are at the risk of tragic individualism. Higgs views the emerging social networks as a solution that provides social responsibility while not limiting personal freedom. Selfies are not symptoms of narcissism—they are ways to strengthen the nodes of the emerging network.

I don’t think we can live without omphaloi. As a Christian, I hold the Creator of heaven and earth as my centre. Higgs would likely view this as an antiquated hold-over from the twentieth-century, something that will be outmoded by personal freedom expressed in networked society. I see the network, with all of its mixed impact social impact, as yet another type of omphalos in a long line. We will always worship something.

—John Higgs, Stranger Than We Can Imagine: An Alternative History of the 20th Century (Toronto, ON: Signal Books, 2015).

The Rise of Christianity | Rodney Stark

The cover of Stark's The Rise of ChristianityThis book destroyed one of my cherished apologetic views. I have always understood the rise of the early church as pure miracle. After all, how could a group of persecuted people following a crucified “criminal” become the dominant religion of the Roman Empire in a mere three centuries? The only comparable phenomenon I knew of was the rise of Islam, but it grew because of military conquest.

It turns out that there are good logical ways to understand the rise of Christianity in those early years. Rodney Stark, using his sociology toolbox, turned his attention to this phenomenon in the aptly titled, The Rise of Christianity.

Stark begins with basic growth arithmetic. Numerically speaking, Christianity grew at 40% per decade, which is similar to the growth of Mormonism. For those first years (when the New Testament was written), it would have looked painfully small and inconsequential. However, 40% growth per decade creates an exponential curve.

After justifying the overall growth trend, he turns his eye to the factors which led to such growth. Here a few of the causes that stood out:

  • The incredibly strong social networks of the Jewish people, the source of Christianity’s first people, empowered the spread of the good news. There was a reason even Paul started his ministry in local synagogues.
  • Christianity developed a surplus of women due to the prohibition of female infanticide and abortion. This increasing number of women would have married and brought men into the faith, swelling their numbers.
  • Ancient cities were horribly overcrowded and dangerous places that bred disease. Christians offered a vision of hope to the oppressed and, through selfless care during times of epidemics, saw more of their sick live.

It turns out that the growth of the early church is the natural effect of living the sort of eternal life that Jesus both taught and lived. While I would be the last person to deny the effective work of the Holy Spirit (after all, that’s how every person comes to Jesus), it was moving for me to see the way that God’s Kingdom grew in the midst of the kingdoms of the world.

The early growth of Christianity is a deeper sort of miracle than I had realized. Rather than relying some deus ex machina, the early church grew by embodying (incarnating) their self-giving Saviour in the midst of a depraved and crumbling Empire. Many parallels can be drawn between the Roman Empire and Western culture. Perhaps the church is poised for a new burst of life!

—Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries (New York: HarperOne, 1996).

Haiti | Laurent Dubois

The cover of Dubois' HaitiI’m not a dispassionate reader. I have been to Haiti twice and, alongside my wife, have participated in humanitarian projects and worship services. We love the people and the country. That’s why this book is so devastating to read.

Haiti’s history began with a massive slave revolt. It was the first successful revolt in history. Obviously, slave-owning nations wanted nothing to do with this country (other than to re-enslave it)—what if these ideas spread?

Consider also the internal problems. Haiti’s wealth was in sugar plantations. How would freed slaves engage the system that had kept them in chains?

In Haiti: The Aftershocks of History, Dubois shows how this founding narrative has impacted all of Haiti’s subsequent history. He shows how the United States used Haiti for its own ends in a 20th century military invasion. He shows how actions have consequences.

Haiti: The Aftershocks of History is a detailed and insightful retelling of the history of a country and people I have learned to love.

—Laurent Dubois, Haiti: The Aftershocks of History (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2012).

A Brief History of Infinity | Brian Clegg

The cover of Clegg's A Brief History of InfinityFor a theologian, infinity is an important thought. Typically, we consider God infinite and his creation (i.e. us) finite. This has serious implications concerning our relationship to him. How can the finite approach the infinite? Consider these words from the prophet Isaiah:

For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.
(Isaiah 55:9 ESV)

In A Brief History of Infinity, Brian Clegg surveys how people have tried to understand the idea of the infinite from the ancient Greek philosophers through 20th Century mathematicians (and everyone in between). It turns out that pagan and religious thinkers alike have wrestled with the paradoxes of infinity for centuries.

Consider this frustrating thought experiment. Take a series of fractions. The numerator is always 1. The denominator doubles each time. With each fraction you list you get closer to 2, but never quite there. There’s an infinite space between the simple integers 1 and 2. How can this be? It’s no wonder some of the people to wrestle with infinity have lost the match and fell into madness!

Infinity (the book) is a satisfying mix of history and mathematics.

—Brian Clegg, A Brief History of Infinity: The Quest to Think the Unthinkable (London: Robinson, 2003).

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