Struggling for the Soul of Our Country

struggling-for-the-soul-of-our-country-p-m-browning-jrStruggling for the Soul of Our Country
Preston M. Browning Jr.
Wipf & Stock, 2016
ISBN: 978-1-4982-0994-6

In ten essays and three appendices, Browning, “a Southerner, an octogenarian, a socialist and, with reservations, a Christian” attempts to explain what he believes is a struggle for the soul of a nation – the soul being defined as “a complex mixture of beliefs, passions, conflicting desires, hopes, fears and contradictions.”

Browning, an academic, author, poet, critic and activist residing in Western Massachusetts where he operates Wellspring House retreat for writers, presents his seasoned views “developed over decades of reading, reflection, and writing.” These essays voice the passionate concerns of a man who has lived his entire life struggling to plant and nurture a new vision for American society. Readers will quickly gain an idea of where Browning stands by simply reading the table of contents

American Global Hegemony vs. the Quest for a New Humanity
American Pathologies and the Response of Faith
Why I am a Christian Socialist
Letter to My Grandchildren
Struggling for the Soul of America
Religionless Christianity in an Age of Spectacle
America’s Forgotten Wars
American Dystopia: Cold War, the CIA, and John F. Kennedy as Sacrificial Victim
Climate Change & Our Shared Earth
The Plague: Money in Politics

Israel’s Heartlessness: We See It in the Treatment of Palestinians
Anger and Hope

As with all of us, Browning’s life experiences have influenced his worldview. A child of the Great Depression, he was raised in rural Virginia in an Episcopalian family.

At church he regularly encountered the message of ancient Hebrew prophets of the Old Testament along with the words of Jesus, most of which he understood to have “excoriated the wealthy of their day for oppressing the poor and ignoring the suffering of the neglected and dispossessed in their midst.”

At home Browning had a mother who

“spent much of her time as a kind of unlicensed and unpaid social worker, visiting some of the most destitute citizens of our county, bringing to these wretched folk food, clothing, and sometimes a little cash but most importantly, a reminder that they were not forgotten.”

Browning says he “never recovered” from those impressionable years.

At a fairly early age I developed a distinct distaste for money-grubbing and an inchoate suspicion of capitalist ideologues, though it would be several decades before I was able to clearly articulate my deep repugnance and later yet before I realized it, although I had read little of Marx since my college days and had never attended a gathering of socialists, I was, in all but name, a socialist. Hence the motif that appears in one way or another in many of these pieces – an unqualified antipathy toward contemporary multinational capitalism and the American empire that supports it – follows quite naturally from the impressions and experiences of my childhood.

The foundation of Browning’s analysis of the state of America’s soul rests on four assumptions:

(1)   that the many pathologies that undermine the psychological and spiritual health of America, including our addiction to violence of all sorts, are closely associate with the brutal, unrelenting quest for wealth that US capitalism epitomizes;
(2)   that an economic system that destroys lives, families, communities, and the Earth, as does contemporary multinational capitalism, is neither sustainable nor worthy of the support of those who suffer its abuses;
(3)   that America is a sick society breeding sick individuals and that only a radical revolution of mind and heart is likely to prevent future catastrophe;
(4)   that as a society we face several major crises, the most immediately threatening of which is global warming, with which we are unprepared and seemingly unwilling to deal, at least with the seriousness such a threat requires.

Throughout these essays, Browning explores American history, foreign policy, economics, human rights, and environmental concerns – all matters of critical importance.

While left-leaning liberals (nothing pejorative intended here) will applaud most, if not all, Browning has to say, right-leaning free market conservatives (again, nothing pejorative intended) will likely dismiss the book as a socialistic, utopian rant. That would be unfortunate, for while one may not agree with Browning’s diagnosis and prescription, he raises many uncomfortable questions for all Americans. He deserves to be respectfully heard.

Browning is troubled by “American exceptionalism”, the belief that the USA is a superior nation above all others. For those who may believe this is no big deal, he says this exceptionalism is demonstrated by:

an American propensity to studiously disregard the opinions of other peoples respecting our country’s actions and, in fact, to regard any opposition to official US decisions as outright hostility.

He illustrates the assertion by reminding readers of the disdain America held toward countries that refused to join the US attack on Iraq in 2003.

Further, Browning believes America’s ignorance of its own history, along with the desire to live only in present means that the country continually fails to learn the lessons from its own past.

There is very little encouragement for contemporary America in this collection of essays. Browning challenges our own self-understanding as a morally upright, compassionate nation striving to enable peoples around the world to live in freedom and security. He sees the nation as driven by imperialistic aims – ensuring Americans continue to enjoy the good life at the expense of everyone else.

While I do not agree with all that he identifies as problems – his seeming disregard for the horrendous history of the Soviet and Chinese socialistic experiment is problematic to say the least – I believe he has identified many issues and hypocrisies within American culture that can no longer afford ignoring.

There is one matter which I cannot ignore. Browning describes himself as a Christian, and as an evangelical Christian myself – one who has invested the last 46 years of life in pastoral ministry – I confess that his understanding of what constitutes being a Christian is radically different from mine. To make my point, consider this statement he makes to his grandchildren in the essay entitled “Letter to My Grandchildren”. He writes:

I know that none of you believes in the supernatural, intervening God of traditional religion; neither do I. But I do believe that there is a spiritual force in the universe that in some way makes our lives – all life, in fact – possible and that prevents the universe and the Earth from flying apart into trillions of bits and pieces.

Whomever, or whatever, this god described by Browning is, he certainly is not describing the God revealed in the Bible – the Old and New Testament Scriptures of Christianity. The God of the Bible is a personal, all-knowing, all-powerful, ever-present God who intends to renew and restore the creation we have so carelessly and rebelliously destroyed. This Creator God has promised to create a new heaven and earth where righteousness will prevail (2 Peter 3:1-18).

As Americans go to the polls this November to elect a president from among the two most unpopular candidates in history, and in light of the surprisingly strong primary campaign led by the avowed socialist, Bernie Sanders, Browning’s essays speak to many issues on the hearts and minds of the American public.

Purchase this book now.
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The Christian Lover

the-christian-lover--michael-haykinThe Christian Lover: The Sweetness of Love and Marriage in the Letters of Believers
Michael A.G. Haykin with Victoria J. Haykin
Reformation Trust Publishing, 2009
ISBN: 978-1567691115

Carl Trueman, Professor of historical theology and church history at Westminster Theological Seminary (Philadelphia), captures well my response to The Christian Lover.

Michael Haykin never ceases to surprise with his gift for producing unusual books on neglected aspects of church history. Here he gives his readers insights into the love lives of some of the great saints of the past, bringing out their humanity in touching and unique ways. An unusual book, certainly, but well worth reading.

I discovered this book while perusing my Facebook page – a friend had posted a link to the Kindle version offered for free at the time. I was interested because Michael Haykin is a personal friend whose work I appreciate, particularly his historical research of Calvinistic Baptists – a heritage that I happily want to share.

Michael Haykin is a prolific author and editor (see “Books & Papers” here), but this particular title struck me as so unique, I immediately downloaded it and began reading. I did not put my iPad down until the last word. Trueman is right: “An unusual book, certainly, but well worth reading.

Marriage has fallen upon hard times. Not only is western culture floundering on the very understanding of what constitutes marriage, the Christian church also seems increasingly comfortable with ending marriages for any number of reasons.

In his Introduction, Michael Haykin reminds us that:

At the heart of marriage, as conceived by God in the primal state, is the intention that the husband delight in and passionately love his wife, and vice versa.

But as is sadly too often the case with many biblical principles, Haykin says:

A cursory study of the history of love and marriage within Christian circles will reveal, however, that this divine ideal has not always been heeded and , indeed, sometimes has been rejected.

He supports his assertion with examples of faulty views of marriage from such notable church fathers as Jerome (4th Century Bible scholar) and Augustine (Latin-speaking theologian of the same era). This influence carried in the Middle Ages through the influence of Bede (ca.673-735) and other Roman Catholic authors of that period.

Haykin believes that the Reformation brought, not only a “rediscovery of the heart of the gospel and the way of salvation”, but also “a recovery of a fully biblical view of marriage.” He gives the remainder of the Introduction to showing how Calvin (1509-1564), the 17th century Puritans, and 18th & 19th century evangelicals rehabilitated marriage, bringing it back to a solid, biblical foundation.

Correspondence between twelve couples spanning the 16th – 20th centuries forms to heart of this book.

16th Century
Martin & Katharina Luther
John & Idelette Calvin

17th Century
John & Lucy Hutchinson (17th Century)

18th Century
Philip & Mercy Doddridge
Benjamin Beddome & Anne Steele
Henry & Eling Venn
Thomas & Sally Charles
Samuel & Sarah Pearce

19th Century
Adoniram & Ann Judson
John & Lottie Broadus

20th Century
Martyn & Bethan Lloyd-Jones

Each couple is introduced with a brief overview of the lives and ministries, followed by correspondence that passed between them. The letters reveal a full range of human emotion – deep and abiding love, concern for one another’s spiritual well-being, as well as genuine passion to serve the God they love.

I could not help notice how the language and writing style changed through the centuries, becoming tighter and much less adorned as they move toward the 20th century. Rarely, if ever, does one see the richness of expression evidenced in earlier times. Letter writing itself has fallen on hard times.

The marriages portrayed were not perfect, but they were rooted in love for God, commitment to God’s design for marriage, and devotion to one another as husband and wife. This is surely worth reading.

Purchase this book now.

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Avoid Genealogies: When Family Trees Become a Problem

family-tree-imageTracing family roots is a fascinating project that can occupy countless hours. A few years ago, a personal friend and colleague in ministry, Glenn Tomlinson (Sovereign Grace Community Church, Sarnia, Ontario) did some research for me, tracing my family line (Daniels) back to 1640, when a Davy Daniels left Scotland for what became the New England colonies.

According to, the top ten genealogy sites for 2015 are:
My Heritage
US National Archives
The National Archives UK
Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC)
Family Search

You can reach any of these sites through the links provided at

Cultures, ancient and modern, have always been interested by ancestors – family trees. The Mormon church places significant theological importance in ancestors as living Mormons can practice proxy baptism for their dead, making possible for their dead relatives to have a second chance at Heaven. Here’s their answer to the question, “Why do Mormons perform baptisms for the dead?”

Jesus Himself, though without sin, was baptized to fulfill all righteousness and to show the way for all mankind (see Matthew 3:13-17; 2 Nephi 31:5-12). Thus, baptism is essential for salvation in the kingdom of God. We learn in the New Testament that baptisms for the dead were done during the Apostle Paul’s time (see 1 Corinthians 15:29). This practice has been restored with the establishment of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The Prophet Joseph Smith first taught about the ordinance of baptism for the dead during a funeral sermon in August 1840. He read much of 1 Corinthians 15, including verse 29, and announced that the Lord would permit Church members to be baptized in behalf of their friends and relatives who had departed this life. He told them “the plan of salvation was calculated to save all who were willing to obey the requirements of the law of God” (Journal History of the Church, 15 Aug. 1840).

Because all who have lived on the earth have not had the opportunity to be baptized by proper authority during life on earth, baptisms may be performed by proxy, meaning a living person may be baptized in behalf of a deceased person. Baptisms for the dead are performed by Church members in temples throughout the world. People have occasionally wondered if the mortal remains of the deceased are somehow disturbed in this process; they are not. The person acting as a proxy uses only the name of the deceased. To prevent duplication, the Church keeps a record of the deceased persons who have been baptized. Some have misunderstood that when baptisms for the dead are performed the names of deceased persons are being added to the membership records of the Church. This is not the case.

Small wonder that family trees play an important role in the Mormon religion. That I do not believe one can find adequate Biblical support for the legitimacy of proxy baptism is a question to be answered at another time.

The first full-fledged family tree in Scripture opens with these words: “This is the written account of Adam’s line” (Gen 5:1). Throughout the rest of the Old Testament, various genealogies and family lists appear. The book of Numbers is so named because of the two census lists appearing in the text – one at the outset of the wilderness wanderings, and one at the conclusion. Both Ezra and Nehemiah contain genealogical lists relating to the Jews who returned to Israel from the Babylonian exile. And who can forget the amazing family tree of our Lord Jesus recorded in the gospels of Matthew and Luke.

With such emphasis on family lines in the Bible, what are we to make of Paul’s warning to both Timothy and Titus, pastors of newly planted first century congregations?

“…command certain men not to teach false doctrines any longer nor to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies. These promote controversies rather than God’s work…” (1 Timothy 1:3-4).

“…avoid foolish controversies and genealogies and arguments and quarrels about the law, because they are unprofitable and useless” (Titus 3:9).

[Scripture taken from the New International Version (1984) Emphasis mine]

With these stern warnings, is the Apostle Paul denigrating the value of all those family trees found in Scripture? Was it not Paul who wrote: “For everything that was written in the past” – and he refers here to the O.T. texts, including the genealogical lists – “was written to teach us, so that through the endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope” (Romans 15:4)?

To answer that question, we need to consider the possible context of Paul’s warnings to Timothy and Titus. Perhaps a few Jewish believers were trying to use their family heritage to procure privileged positions within the churches. Paul himself had once taken great pride in his family tree: “If anyone else thinks he has reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more…of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews…” (Philippians 3:4-5). However, following his conversion experience, Paul declared his once-important lineage to be little more than “rubbish” compared to knowing Christ (Php. 3:8).

Further, the fact that Paul mentions “quarrels about the law” in the same warning, could mean that some within the churches were seeking to give permanence to what God intended to be temporary (See Galatians 3:24-25).

The biblical family trees remind us of God’s sovereign control of all history – that he works through free moral agents to accomplish his divinely decreed purposes. However, those same biblical genealogies were never meant to provide occasion for pride or presumed privilege within the New Covenant community of God.

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Recognizing the Messiah’s Message

Recognizing-the-Messiah's-Message-J-LeathRecognizing the Messiah’s Message: A Layman’s Study of Matthew
Jeffrey Leath
WestBow Press, 2015
ISBN: 978-1- 4908-7078-6

This is Jeffrey Leath’s second book, and with it he continues demonstrating the valuable contribution diligent laypersons make in the biblical and theological education of our congregations. As with his first book, Solid Food: A Layman’s Study of Hebrews, this study of Matthew was first presented to the Sunday School class he teaches at Pine Grove Church in Bowmansville, Pennsylvania.

Christians generally understand the four gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – to present four pictures of Jesus.

Matthew – Jesus as the King
Mark – Jesus as a servant
Luke – Jesus as the perfect human
John – Jesus as God incarnate

While Leath says he also studied the gospels through these four pictures, he now believes Matthew’s purpose is more extensive than simply presenting him as Israel’s King.

… I find that Matthew is being led by the Holy Spirit to reveal more than merely Jesus’ position as King and Messiah. Matthew is sharing with us the message of the Messiah and His message to the early church is still relevant today.

Through twenty-seven chapters, Leath unpacks the man and the message of this one who came as Israel’s Messiah and the Savior of all who believe in him.

Leath carefully puts readers into the context of the first century world of Jesus – both in terms of the occupying Roman government and the Jewish cultural and religious world in which Jesus lived. I hope readers won’t miss the way Leath willingly draws from all the resources available to him: his daughter’s knowledge of Jewish history and culture, received from an International Jewish Studies education through Friends of Israel and Cairn University, and from several classic texts focused on life in first century Israel. The background and color Jeffrey Leath brings to his study is available to any serious student of Scripture who is willing to invest to the time to research the sources available to North American Christians.

They study moves consecutively through Matthew’s gospel, unpacking the high points of the text, never losing sight of the imperative to apply the principles of Messiah’s message to our own lives.

In Matthew 24, when answering the disciple’s questions about the destruction of the Temple and the end of the world, Jesus outlines a number of significant eschatological events:

The destruction of the temple
Wars and rumors of wars
Famines and earthquakes
Persecution of Christians (“account of my name”)
False Prophets
Increase in lawlessness
Abomination of desolation
A great tribulation
False christs
Loss of power from the heavens (sun, moon, stars)
Return of the Son of Man

Leath doesn’t succumb to the temptation to dwell solely on dates and timing of events, but rather emphasizes the spirit of Christ’s teaching to be ready and watchful. He writes:

These things will happen, and some have already happened. Jesus’ message to the disciples, however, was more than just to satisfy their curiosity. His message was:

know the signs,
be ready,
be faithful and prudent,
know the signs, be ready,
be faithful and prudent,
keep watch, and be prepared because you do not know the day or hour, and
administer what has been entrusted to you until the day of reckoning.

There is a lot of good teaching on how to live today in light of Christ’s return to this world. Leath quotes Michael Green:

Prophecy is not intended to give us a detailed picture of the future, but to lift up our hearts in expectancy so that we make ourselves ready for what is to come. … Jesus did not tell us to get out our calculators and polish our crystal balls, but to live a holy life in preparation for meeting Him.

If you are looking for a devotional study of Matthew’s gospel for personal study or a small-group setting, give Jeffrey Leath’s study guide consideration. He reads easily, is warmly evangelical, and consistently reminds us that good Bible study leads to changed lives.

Purchase this book now.
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15 Reasons to take Genesis as History

Genesis-as-History--Batten-and-Sarfati15 Reasons To Take Genesis As History
Don Batten & Jonathan Sarfati
Creation Book Publishers, 2013, 2nd Ed.

While biblical truth has always faced attack, perhaps no attack has been as aggressive and unremitting as the attack on the historical reliability of the opening words of Scripture – the account of Creation. A growing body of scientists & theologians professing to be Bible-believing Christians have embraced an evolutionary understanding of origins.

Many Christians, anxious to be seen as intelligent, rational beings, are succumbing to the accepted wisdom of evolutionary thinking – whether full-blown Darwinian evolution or some form of theistic evolution. However, there is another way. There are many scientists, philosophers and theologians who have not given up on Genesis. And you do not need to give up either.

Creation Ministries International (CMI) is one of several evangelical ministries devoted to reminding Christians that the Bible they hold in their hands is the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. In this vein, CMI has produced 15 Reasons To Take Genesis As History, a helpful, accessible defense of the historical veracity of Genesis.

Believing Genesis to be a true record of what actually happened negates all forms of evolutionary theory – theistic evolution included. If Genesis is true, Adam & Eve are historical persons – the very first people to populate the planet. If Genesis is true history, then God did create our world in six 24-hour days, resting and contemplating a perfect creation on the seventh day.

Don Batten & Jonathan Sarfati present these fifteen reasons for understanding Genesis as true history:

  1. Jesus understood the Old Testament as history.
  2. Jesus regarded Adam, Eve and Noah as historical people.
  3. Genesis was written as history.
  4. The rest of the Old Testament takes Genesis as history.
  5. The New Testament takes Genesis 1-11 as history.
  6. Genesis history is consistent with God’s nature.
  7. Genesis as history explains the origin of death and suffering.
  8. The Gospel presupposes the historical events of Genesis.
  9. A consistent Christian worldview depends on Genesis as history.
  10. Denying the history of Genesis disconnects Christianity form the ‘real world’.
  11. The early church leaders accepted the timeframe and global Flood of Genesis.
  12. The Reformers understood Genesis as history.
  13. Atheism requires naturalism – Christians should not deny Genesis as history to accommodate it.
  14. Abandoning Genesis as history leads to heresy and apostasy.
  15. Why not take Genesis as history? Only the fallible speculations of historical ‘science’ stand in the way.

Each reason is followed by a simple, to-the-point explanation, complete with biblical references and footnotes to other supporting resources.

We might expect a resource like this to be written by theologians, but in this case, Don Batten (Ph.D. in biology/plant physiology) & Jonathan Sarfati (Ph.D. in chemistry/physics) are scientists with a passion to equip Christians in answering the challenges posed by materialistic, humanistic, and atheistic worldviews. Both men are published scholars in secular scientific journals as well as apologists for biblical creation and Christianity.

I am aware that there are many sincere Christians who hold that the opening chapters of Genesis are not meant to be read as literal history, but as a metaphor or story given to an ancient people who would have no understanding of the complex scientific categories and explanations. Though sincere in their desire to find a harmony between science and the Bible, the trajectory of such a view, if followed to its logical conclusion, will inevitably erode their confidence in the inspiration and authority of the Word of God. Tragically for some, it will lead to renouncing the Christian faith.

This is a great introduction to a critically important topic. Indeed, if we cannot believe that the biblical account of our origin and human condition is as recorded in Genesis, we can have no real confidence that the solution offered is true and reliable either.

I recommend this resource as an introduction to a conversation that needs to be taking place in our homes and churches.

Purchase this book now.
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