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Book reviews

The Vorrh | B. Catling

The cover of Catling's The VorrhIn the heart of Africa lies the Vorrh, a primal forest from which the world was created. The Vorrh is not a place to be wandered into lightly—it changes people, erasing memories.

The Vorrh appealed to me because the premise echoed Vandermeer’s gripping Southern Reach Trilogy. Furthermore, Vandermeer’s blurb on the back cover said The Vorrh “is unlike anything I’ve read.” I had to find out for myself.

B. Catling, a poet, sculptor, painter, and performance artist turned novelist, has created a compelling surrealist fantasy. It’s a world where an orphan cyclops raised by robots lives alongside historical figures like experimental photographer Eadweard Muybridge and French author Raymond Roussel. At times it reminded me of some of Michael Ende’s Mirror Within the Mirror stories.

Speaking of Muybridge leads me to my only criticism of the book. Some of the plot threads refuse to coalesce. I finished the book thinking that Muybridge’s narrative could have been a separate novel without effecting the primary narrative of The Vorrh. I have read that in his sequel, The Erstwhile, Catling has tightened his storytelling. I can hardly wait dive back into Catling’s vision.


Catling, B. The Vorrh. New York: Vintage Books, 2015.

An Evangelical Christology | Bernard L. Ramm

The cover of Ramm's An Evangelical ChristologyNineteen eighty-three was a frightening time to be an evangelical theologian. Liberal, existential, process, and liberation theologies (to name a few) put pressure on conservatives to respond, but many felt untrained for the specialized tasks of redaction, form, and textual criticism. Evangelicals had two choices: ignore or engage. Ramm chose to fight.

An Evangelical Christology is two books rolled into one. On the one hand, Ramm states with clarity the various elements of Christology. The further into the book you read, however, the larger the second purpose looms: this book is a manual for war. It is never enough for Ramm to state what he believes—he defines his views as opposed to liberal theology, especially that of Rudolf Bultmann.

The overall method Ramm uses to fight back is revealed in the subtitle: “Ecumenic and Historic”. Ramm begins with the classic creeds—Apostolic, Nicene, Chalcedon, etc.—and shows how evangelical christology stands in line with church history (and how his liberal opponents have forsaken their birthright).

The strength of this volume lies in Ramm’s clear exposition of the classic elements of Christology (although I am always frustrated at how most Christologies, this one included, virtually ignore Jesus’ three years of earthly ministry). The weaknesses are twofold:

  1. The battlelines have been redrawn. As culture has shifted from a modern to a post-modern worldview, the war between conservative and liberal theologies seems almost quaint. Ramm’s 1983 battle against the forces of liberalism now reads more like a history of theology.
  2. Ramm ignores his own situatedness. This comes to the surface (ironically? hypocritically?) when he discusses why John’s gospel is different from the synoptics. Ramm wisely asks, “What kind of gospel would John write if he lived in Ephesus about thirty years and carried on a Christian dialogue at a high level in its most sophisticated community? He would write a gospel . . . that would reflect his effort to reframe the original Christian message to make it most effective to his audience in Ephesus” (145). Ramm understands that the writing of John’s gospel was situated in the cultural river (a John H. Walton phrase) of his day yet understands himself as somehow transcendent to the culture of modernism which led him to war in the first place.

The apostle John once brought Jesus a concern: a person outside Jesus’ group of disciples was going around exorcising demons. Jesus replied, “Do not stop him; for whoever is not against you is for you” (Luke 9:50 NRSV). An Evangelical Christology would have been a much stronger book had Ramm laid down his weapons and sought to learn from the strengths of his theological interlocutors.


Ramm, Bernard L. An Evangelical Christology: Ecumenic & Historic. Vancouver: Regent College Publishing, 1999.

Fargo Rock City | Chuck Klosterman

The cover of Klosterman's Fargo Rock CityI resonate with Klosterman’s musical obsession despite being one generation removed. Sure, he’s only two years older than me, but when he was listening to Mötley Crüe, I was into Michael W. Smith. It wasn’t until the early 90s that I started obsessing over albums and liner notes.

In Fargo Rock City, Klosterman pays tribute to the genre he loves—lovingly called “hair metal” today. The narrative is a trip through musical and personal landmarks that defined the pre-grunge era.

Klosterman’s penchant for ridiculous arguments is on full display in this critical tour of 1980s heavy metal. He also makes a surprising number of astute musical observations. (For example, he presents an unorthodox yet logical argument for why Bush signalled the death of Grunge.)

If you long for the days of Def Leppard, Poison, Skid Row, Bon Jovi, and especially G’n’R, this book is for you.


Klosterman, Chuck. Fargo Rock City: A Heavy Metal Odyssey in Rural Nörth Daköta. New York: Scribner, 2003.

The Discourses | Symeon the New Theologian

The cover of Symeon's The DiscoursesThe man was intense!

One the eve of a rebellion, when the monks under his supervision ran to the Patriarch of the city to get relief from their severe Abbot, Symeon spoke to them:

I cannot endure to be silent about the things I have seen, about the wonders of God I have known by fact and experience. Rather, I testify of them to all others as in God’s presence, and say with a loud voice, “Run, all of you, before the door of repentance is closed to you by death. Run, that you may take hold of it before you depart this life; make haste that you may receive it, knock, that your Master may open to you before you die, and that He may show himself to you.” (349)

Symeon was not only severe. In a compassionate moment towards those who insufficiently fasted during Lent, he said:

[God] it is who in great generosity gives crowns to the zealous and duly rewards their labors, and also in mercy and loving-kindness grants forgiveness to the weaker. (181)

Symeon was driven by a vision of God that would not let him relax. Having experienced the inexpressible light of God, he was compelled to urge the people around him to press on towards that light.

My biggest struggle with Symeon (and all the ancient Orthodox saints) is their spirit-flesh dualism and extreme asceticism. They are constantly preoccupied with escaping the material world which God deemed “very good” and validated by becoming incarnate. That said, Symeon’s passion and insight into the spiritual condition made the struggle worthwhile!

Symeon’s Discourses are deep devotional material. Written for those in a monastic life, they are still relevant today for those with a passionate commitment to Christ.


Symeon the New Theologian. The Discourses. The Classics of Western Spirituality: A Library of the Great Spiritual Masters. Translated by C. J. deCatanzaro. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1980.

Catch the Fire | Michael Wilkinson and Peter Althouse

The cover of Wilkinson and Althouse's Catch the FireSoaking prayer is a relatively new phenomenon. Participants are brought together in a worship setting. They then lie down, often with pillow and blanket, as worship music is played. During this time they rest—soak—in the Father’s love. Leaders of the meeting don’t pray verbally, although they may lay hands on the soakers for a time.

Soaking has a purpose beyond the appeal of a new spiritual experience. Those who soak believe that they are being filled with the Father’s love in order to  express that love to others. Soaking has an altruistic motive which aligns with the vision of Catch the Fire churches: “… to walk in God’s love and give it away, until the whole earth is filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord.”

There are two roots to soaking prayer. Classical Pentecostals spoke of being “slain in the Spirit.” This occurred when someone receiving prayer fell over under the Spirit’s power. The Catholic tradition, especially with Francis McNutt, rejected the violent language of Classical Pentecostals and preferred to speak of “resting in the Spirit.” This aligns with Catholic contemplative tradition. The purpose of resting in the Spirit is to receive healing.

In Catch the Fire, sociologist Michael Wilkinson and theologian Peter Althouse share the results of an extensive study of the soaking phenomenon. The book is methodologically rigorous and theologically generous. It was written not to support or criticize, but to understand and explain.

If you are interested in what is happening in the charismatic renewal, this is your book.


Wilkinson, Michael and Peter Althouse. Catch the Fire: Soaking Prayer and Charismatic Revival. DeKalb, IL: NIU Press, 2014.

Designing Religious Research Studies | C. Jeff Woods

The cover of Woods' Designing Religious Research StudiesResearch begins with passion and ends, hopefully, with a thoroughly explored answer to an important question. At the beginning of the research design process, the focus is broad and diverse. Then, with each decision the researcher makes, that breadth is narrowed. Like water through a funnel picks up speed, the research project gathers momentum and the once unmanageable idea transforms into a legitimate project.

In Designing Religious Research Studies, Woods gives the prospective researcher an overview of all the steps required to transform that initial passion into a doable project. He draws on his classroom experience teaching research to provide a simple overview of the process.

This introductory-level volume is void of technical jargon and could be read by anyone interested in how studies are designed. In a sense, this 125 page volume is like the abstract of a research paper: it offers a high-level overview of the topic at hand: research design.


Woods, Jeff C. Designing Religious Research Studies: From Passion to Procedures. Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2016.

Qualitative Inquiry & Research Design | John Creswell & Cheryl Poth

The cover of Creswell & Poth's Qualitative Inquiry and Research DesignI am in the awkward situation of learning sociological method after having spent my entire higher education studying theology. Starting from scratch is overwhelming, to say the least! Creswell and Poth’s text makes the journey easier.

Qualitative Inquiry and Research Design describes five overarching ways to do research:

  1. Narrative Research studies individuals and their stories.
  2. Phenomenological Research studies a several people who share the same experience.
  3. Grounded Theory Research studies a process, action, or interaction with a view to develop a theory.
  4. Ethnographic Research studies a group that shares the same culture.
  5. Case Study Research studies a specific event, program, or activity.

Each approach digs into the subject in a different way, providing a different perspective. Creswell and Poth bring the unique features of each approach to light brilliantly in the final chapter by taking a case study and reframing it in each of the other four approaches.

Creswell and Poth’s text hits the sweet spot where understandability and depth of insight meet. It brings clarity the the research methods required to do effective sociological work.


Creswell, John W. and Cheryl N. Poth. Qualitative Inquiry and Research Design: Choosing Among Five Approaches. 4th Edition. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, 2018.

Paul and His Letters | John B. Polhill

The cover of Paul and his LettersIt’s safe to say that the church wouldn’t exist in its current forms without Paul. Although the Spirit worked through many characters hinted at tangentially (Apollo, for example), Paul was the apostle to the Gentiles. His complex background, dramatic conversion/commissioning, zealous missionary work, and extant letters have been a puzzle tackled by Pauline scholars throughout the ages.

Polhill’s book begins with about a hundred pages of introductory material on Paul before giving way to chapters about his key letters. Chapters about his travelogue are interspersed amongst the letters. Polhill presents a conservative view of Paul, assuming the Pauline authorship of the thirteen epistles that bear his name. At the end of each chapter a helpful bibliography for further investigation is included, divided into Greek-based and English-based sources.

I struggled with Polhill’s lack of subtlety in handling Paul’s motives and actions. For example, Polhill notes how “Paul remained a Jew even as a Christian . . . [h]e maintained Jewish practices, like taking a Nazarite vow (Acts 18:18) and participating in the vows of others (Acts 21:26)” (26). While it’s a given that Paul remained an ethnic Jew while following the Jewish Messiah, Polhill oversimplified the situation. Paul’s participation in the vows of others was conceived by James and company and implemented as a tactic to avoid a religio-political confrontation. (The ruse failed!)

Current issues in Pauline scholarship were undertreated. The “new perspective,” for example, receives a one page overview with the following summary statement: “The debate on Paul’s view of the law is far from finished and promises to continue for a long time to come” (297). Again, this statement is true but unhelpful. Such a major interpretive issue should be more thoughtfully handled. In these cases Polhill always assumes a traditional conservative view.

Paul and His Letters is a solid overview of the life of Paul. For a fuller picture of the enigmatic apostle, this volume should be supplemented by more current scholarship and divergent viewpoints.


Polhill, John B. Paul and His Letters. Nashville: B&H Academic, 1999.

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