O Susanna!

susanna-wesleyFor readers desiring an in-depth portrait of the “Mother of Methodism,” look no further than John A. Newton’s Susanna Wesley and the Puritan Tradition in Methodism, 2nd ed. (London: Epworth, 2002). An update of the 1968 original, Newton brings to life the mother of John and Charles Wesley, Methodism’s co-founders. From her days as the daughter (and one of 25 children!) of nonconformist London minister, Dr. Samuel Annesley, to her decision at 13 to leave nonconformity and join the Church of England, to her rocky marriage to Samuel Wesley and difficult life in Epworth, Newton paints a detailed portrait of the triumphs and travails of a remarkable woman.

John Newton adds texture to a well-known story. When Samuel and Susanna split over different views on who was the rightful king of England, Samuel announced: “If we have two kings, we must have two beds” (p. 87). Most other treatments of the Wesleys include this detail, then jump to the reconciliation a year later, after which John Wesley was born. Yet Newton digs deeper, adding another six pages of context. In the end, Samuel ends up looking impetuous for having stormed off to London, a conclusion that seems well-supported by the additional detail he provides surrounding the incident.

Of particular interest is chapter 4, “A Mother in Israel.” Here, Newton opens the doors to the Epworth rectory, bringing us into the daily life of the burgeoning Wesley family. For a woman who had grown up in the relative luxury of Dr. Annesley’s London home, the near penury of the Epworth parish must have been a bitter pill. In a rare moment of candor, when asked by the Archbishop of York whether she and her family had ever lacked bread, she replied (p. 98):

My Lord, I will freely own to your grace that, strictly speaking, I never did want bread. But then, I had so much care to get it before it was eat, and to pay for it after, as has often made it very unpleasant to me. And I think to have bread on such terms is the next degree of wretchedness to having none at all!

There is no question that Susanna’s Wesley life was difficult. Despite the hardships, she successfully raised 7 children into adulthood, out of 19 born to her and her husband. (Infant mortality claimed many lives in 18th century England). Newton’s biography illuminates the character of one with an abiding faith in God, intellectual curiosity, and strong pastoral gifts (though squelched by the prejudices of the day).

If there is a weakness in Newton’s book, it is that it borders on making Susanna Wesley a saint. Unlike recent research on John Wesley that has revealed some of his warts, thus humanizing him, there is no such counterbalancing material in Susanna Wesley and the Puritan Tradition in Methodism unless one reckons her strong will as pigheadedness. Perhaps new light will one day emerge from the many neglected boxes of archives in the Methodist collection at the John Rylands library in Manchester. A fuller account that includes foibles would do nothing to detract from the respect given to Mrs. Wesley but help give a more realistic (and endearing) accounting.

This consideration aside, I enjoyed Newton’s biography of Susanna Wesley. She was unquestionably a strong woman who contributed to the birth of a movement that changed the world. For those looking for a solid (though imperfect) biography, I recommend it.

An excellent summary of Wesleyan theology

essential-beliefsMark Maddix and Diane LeClerc have done it again. Just two years after collaborating as co-editors of Essential Church: A Wesleyan Ecclesiology (Beacon Hill, 2014), they’ve overseen the production (also by Beacon) of Essential Beliefs: A Wesleyan Primer (2016), a welcome volume that will fill an important niche for those desiring a concise but comprehensive introduction to Wesleyan theology.

The term “primer” is well-chosen. Each of the 19 chapters in the 159 page book serves as an introduction to an important doctrinal topic. Organized in a traditional format, the five sections move the reader from 1) the sources and method of theology, to 2) God as theology’s subject, then 3) creation/humanity/sin, followed by  4) the nature of forgiveness and sanctification, and ending with 5) the church’s “meaning, purpose, and hope,” i.e. ecclesiology and eschatology. By book’s close, the careful reader will have taken in the panoroma of Wesleyan theology and – thanks to the suggestions for further reading at the end of each chapter – confidently be able to double back to pursue smaller trails that fork off from the main path.

The editors assigned the writing of chapters out to a crop of younger, emerging scholars, both male and female (Essential Beliefs, 16). This was a good decision, giving the book a freshness and sensitivity to more recent emphases, including a relational reading of sanctification. Also commendable is that not all writers were from North America, with solid chapters contributed by an Austalian, Zimbawean, Brit, and Filipino.

Mark Maddix’s chapter on spiritual growth contains a sentence that caught my attention. Referring to Communion, he observes: “Christians recognize that as they breathe in through participation in Word and Table, they are healed, empowered, and equipped to breathe out in God’s mission in the world” (Essential Beliefs, 122). This is a powerful metaphor that applies not only to Eucharist but to many other discipleship aspects of church life, including Christian education, preaching, and participation in small groups. Not having read Essential Beliefs until this week (December 2016), it’s fascinating that his breathing in/breathing out image is exactly what I have developed at greater length in Mere Ecclesiology: Finding Your Place in the Church’s Mission (Wipf & Stock, 2016) as the concept of “spiritual respiraton.” Maddix’s sentence is a confirmation that the Holy Spirit is always speaking to the church in sundry locations, yet somehow moving us together in the same direction.

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A brew that is true?

Agbonkhiameghe Emmanuel Orobator, SJ
Agbonkhiameghe Emmanuel Orobator, SJ

When I first drank coffee, let’s be honest: I hated the taste. The only way I could enjoy it was if I doctored  it with copious amounts of sugar and cream. Then, over time, I wanted more coffee and fewer additives. What happened? The taste grew on me.

As with coffee, so with theology. Having read Agbonkhianmeghe E. Orobator’s Theology Brewed in an African Pot (Orbis: 2008, Kindle edition), I really wanted to like it. After all, he is doing what I want my own Kenyan students to do, not to parrot theology seen through a Western lens but to contextualize theology for their own setting. But at least on a first read-through, I’m reminded of coffee. I may need some time for the taste to grow on me.

Let’s consider a positive aspect of Theology Brewed in an African Pot, namely, the strong chapter on ecclesiology. As a Wesleyan, I am closer in some ways to Orobator’s Roman Catholicism than a Baptist or Presbyterian would be. Both Wesleyans and Catholics emphasize the importance of holiness. Moreover, this holiness is never meant to be a solitary pursuit. John Wesley (1703-91) refused to advocate a kind of faith that was individualistic. Instead, he organized his followers into small groups for encouragement and accountability. In the same way, Orobator develops the nexus between the corporate emphasis of Catholicism as the people of God and the solidarity of African cultures, where “I am because we are.”  Church is not just a loose organization of individuals; rather, Church is family. He clarifies (locations 1465-1470):

In many parts of Africa, family is an important value and dimension of religious, socio-cultural, political, and economic life. Social systems in Africa pivot on the family. When Vatican II declares that the church is the people of God and a communion, we understand this to mean that within the context of the African Christian community, the church is family. Therefore, the corresponding and appropriate model of the local church in Africa is Church as Family of God.

In the Nazarene congregation where I grew up, our pastor had a time in the service where we would sing the Gaither standby, “I’m so glad I’m a part of the family of God.” While we sang it, we’d shake hands with others around us. Indeed, as I’ve traveled the world, the church as my extended family has been a comfort, an anchor when my life has been mostly sail. So when Orobator speaks of the church in this way, it resonates with my own heart, a reminder that the metaphor of the Church as family is not reserved just for African Christians. It’s an idea that resonates with many cultures on diverse continents.

While I appreciate Orobator’s ecclesiology, I cannot say the same about his view of the ancestors. Chapter 9 – “Our Fathers and Mothers Who Art in Heaven” – presents the conception of African Traditonal Religion (ATR) re. the ancestors as compatible with Christian faith, but is it? Some of what he claims is innocuous enough, such as the value of recounting the stories of those who have gone before us, what he calls the “communion of saints” (location 1865). Where he veers into dubious territory is when speaking of the “living dead” (ancestors) as protecting us (location 1889, emphasis added):

…Through the active presence of the living dead, the community grows qualitatively, because, as ancestors, they have only one duty: to protect the lives of their progeny. In many different ways we celebrate them. We rejoice in their presence.

Likewise, an ancestor is for Orobator an “intercessor,” taking petitions to a “Supreme Being” (location 1899). Roman Catholicism – through its cult of Mary and the other saints – is amenable to those like Orobator who want to maintain a place for the ancestors that goes beyond verbal honor to believing that ancestors are active in our daily lives.

Yet is the idea of ancestors as protectors and intercessors biblical? When Paul was caught in a storm, he did not ask an ancestor to intercede with God for their protection. Rather, God sent an angel to Paul who re-assured him that he and the others in the ship would be spared. “Be encouraged, men! I have faith in God that it will be exactly as he told me” (Acts 27:25 CEB). It is an angel in this instance (not an ancestor) who acts as a messenger of God, as a go-between, assuring him of God’s protection. Yet even here, we must be careful not to be distracted by the angel. Prayer is never directed to angels by Paul in any of his letters; rather, his prayers are addressed directly to God. (Ephesians 3:14-21 is one example). Intercession is the role neither of ancestors nor of angels. Rather, intercession is lodged squarely in the heart of the Trinity. Jesus is our High Priest and intercedes for us (Hebrews 7:25). Likewise, the Holy Spirit interecedes with the Father, even groaning on our behalf (Romans 8:26), a sure sign of his loving concern.

By attempting to reconcile Christian faith and the cult of the ancestors, Orobator has arguably opened a door to syncretism, an amalgam of religious worldviews that cannot mix and remain consistent with biblical faith. His may be a theology brewed in an African pot, but can the brew be healthy when it has been compromised in this way?

Orobator should be commended for wrestling with his own religious heritage passed down to him from his ancestors and the variety of Christian faith that as a young man he chose to follow. Indeed, we all must hammer out our own faith and do our best to see where our own culture of origin has made us blind to important aspects of the Bible. Theology, after all, is not only brewed in African pots. It has also historically been brewed in German, British, and American pots, among others. The challenge for any of us is to accept the critique of those who stand outside our culture. They can sometimes help us discern in the theological brew that we serve up distasteful elements to which we are oblivious.

By reading Orobator’s Theology Brewed in an African Pot, the reader discovers how theological contextualization can be an effective, positive impetus for evangelization. On the other hand, the book is simultaneously a cautionary tale of the doctrinal compromise that can be the unwitting result of the desire to make the Gospel more appealing in any given setting. May God continue to give us wisdom as we walk together as brothers and sisters in Christ, engaging this essential but delicate task.

A well-intentioned but misguided proposal

kennedy
Dr Philip Kennedy

Dr Philip Kennedy is a member of the Faculty of Theology and Religion at Mansfield College, University of Oxford. In A Modern Introduction to Theology: New Questions for Old Beliefs (London: I.B. Tauris, 2006, Amazon Kindle edition), he traces the rise of modernity from its beginnings and growth in the 17th/18th century  and continuing through Higher Criticism in biblical studies and the scientific revolution of the 20th century. By the end of the book, one may agree that Christian theology is in a 21st century wilderness of increasing societal irrelevance – at least in the West – but if you’re looking for Kennedy to lead the way out, you’ll be disappointed.

Let us first thank Dr Kennedy for what he gets right. As a Brit, he clearly sees the diminished influence of the church in the United Kingdom and throughout Europe, what he calls as the title of chapter 2 “Christianity’s current predicament.” Kennedy laments: “Untold numbers of contemporary human beings in the industrialized, commercialized and digitalized Occident now prefer to spend Sunday mornings in gymnasiums rather than churches. Why?” (chapter 2, Kindle location 655). There is no question that this is a problem of immense proportion in parts of the world. This is the context in which Kennedy asks the guiding question for his book:

Should conventional Christianity radically modify its doctrine and practices in the light of advanced knowledge generated in modern times? Or ought it to perpetuate itself in contemporary settings by recapitulating ancient wisdoms? (chapter 2, location 619).

By the end of the book, having rehearsed several centuries of challenges to Christian faith originating from diverse academic quarters – from Nietzsche, Feuerbach, Freud, Hick, Darwin, and a dozen others – it comes as no surprise at the book’s end when Kennedy concludes: “My answer to the book’s impelling question – as might have been guessed! – is that Christianity and its traditional theology need far-reaching revision” (From the Conclusion, Kindle location 5541).

So far, so good – there’s a problem that has developed over centuries, and a huge one at that. Yet there seems to be at the same time a certain prejudice just under the surface that shows up in subtle ways. Also in the Conclusion (location 5526), Kennedy observes regarding dismal church attendance in the U.K. –

The principle reason they stay at home is that they are educated enough to realize that the world and its inhabitants can no longer be described in terms unaware of the findings of modern science.

This seems like a backhanded way to affirm that the more you are aware of science, the less you will be a person of faith. Strangely, Kennedy offers no evidence to substantiate his implication. In fact, groups such as BioLogos are creating spaces where those who love God and biology can pursue both, confident that faith and scientific research are complementary, not contradictory. John Polkinghorne, formerly an astrophysicist, is now an Anglican Priest, another example of a person who has not felt compelled to choose between Christian faith or scientific pursuit. Kennedy would have done well to give some treatment to these promising conversations that are happening.

A second assumption that Kennedy makes is that “pre-modern” theology – by which he means that in the tradition of Aristotle, Augustine, and Thomas Aquinas – cannot flourish in the modernism of the 21st century. (One can question his reliance on the term “modern” as a way to describe the contemporary Western scene vs. the majority term “postmodern”). While he does doff his hat at several points to the growth of the church in the Global South – where contrary to his thesis, traditional theological constructs still rule the day – he seems to be unaware that the fastest growing Christian confessions in the United States are those promoting more ancient expressions of Christian faith, such as the Orthodox Church in America. (Note: Part of this growth can be attributed to immigration). American Millenials are increasingly leaving Evangelical churches, gravitating to communities of faith with a much deeper and historic form of worship, often more liturgical or “High Church.” This counter-evidence of attendance trends seemingly validating ancient faith is debatable, for sure, but it’s a debate Kennedy does not engage.

Finally, the tenor of Kennedy’s book is unduly anti-supernaturalistic. The assumption seems to be that since a scientific worldview now dominates, to survive, the church must abandon a conception of a God who performs miracles like those described in Scripture. But is this assumption based on a faulty binary thinking, i.e. that we either believe in naturalism or supernaturalism? Is it not possible to affirm both? For example, we go to the doctor for what ails us and are addicted to our cell phones, yet many in Western cultures are pushing out the edges of their technological worldview to encompass belief in the supernatural. J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series is exhibit A of the hunger of Brits and other Westerners for what is beyond the natural realm. When I was in France for language study in 1994, an edition of the Nouvel Observateur (a popular French magazine) noted that there were more practicing wizards in France than Protestant pastors. While the church was anemic, belief in the supernatural was robust. My children were enrolled in the French schools and it was surprising to see how much of French children’s literature spoke of witches and warlocks. This seemed to go beyond the realm of imagination to the realm of explanation, an attempt to add another interpretive framework to that of science alone, and this in the country that was at the forefront of the Enlightenment detailed at length by Kennedy — see chapter 4.

When we look at what variety of Christianity is growing best in the world – including in Kennedy’s United Kingdom – it is the Pentecostal strand of Christian faith, one that takes most seriously the reality of unseen forces. This growth arguably is happening because it takes into account the conceptual framework of Hollywood films that promote vampires, zombies, and other para-normal phenomena. Whereas a purely rationalistic type of Christianity denies miracles, Pentecostalism acknowledges evil forces and the many ways in which they can be manifested — see Ephesians 6:10-18. At the same time, it assures followers of Christ that Jesus is the Christus Victor, the one who has through his death and resurrection triumphed over it all! Ours is not to cower in fear but to push back the darkness, bringing in the Kingdom through the power of the Holy Spirit. In short, such a worldview need not deny the truths of science. However, it adds to its explanatory repertoire realities no less true for being invisible and transcending the natural realm, phenomena that the Bible describes as angels and demons and which may include the idea of systemic evil.

Philip Kennedy has written an introduction to theology that rehearses historic challenges to a Christian worldview. For that, he is to be commended; as theologians, ours is to engage challenges, not stick our head in the sand. I don’t doubt that his recommendation of radically revising Christian orthodoxy is well-intentioned. Notwithstanding, his proposal is misguided to the degree that it does not sufficiently factor in contrary evidence. Chief among this evidence is the striking advance of a type of Christianity particularly in the Global South (Latin America, Africa, and Asia) that is much closer to the plain reading of Scripture that he finds problematic. Indeed, the correct response to the decline of Christian influence is not to water down our wine, but to remember the One who turned water into wine.

Today, youth are more open than ever before to the supernatural as a reality and not just fantasy. At such a moment, it would be tragic if we heed the call of Dr Kennedy and jettison the very elements of Christian faith contained in Scripture that are most likely to connect with the youth of our post-modern world.

N.T. Wright gets back to basics

christianBishop N.T. Wright is arguably the most prolific biblical theologian of our time. Capable of treatises that challenge long-cherished interpretations of doctrines – such as his expansive Paul and the Faithfulness of God addressing justification- Wright’s versatility shows through in a different approach targeted both to the believer and to the intelligent seeker. Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense (Harper Collins, 2006; Amazon Kindle edition) is one such book.

Part One, “Echoes of a Voice,” invites the reader into a conversation. By examining injustice (and the human desire to correct it), the “hidden spring” of an undeniable thirst for spirituality in the human heart, relationships between persons and the role of beauty for meaningful existence, Wright examines longings common to all human beings, asking important questions for whom the only sensible answer is God.

Part Two launches into a review of who God is and how God has chosen to relate to creation. He briefly reviews (pp. 60-63)- and dismisses – traditional approaches to God, including what he calls “Option 1,” namely, pantheism (“all is God and God is all”), panentheism (“all is in God”), and “Option 2,” deism (where God creates then removes himself). In its place, he proposes Option 3, a scheme where heaven and earth are “overlapping and interlocking” (p. 63). The biblical narrative of both Old and New Testaments bears witness to this engagement between Creator and Creation, but why is such engagement necessary? Wright clarifies (p. 66):

In particular, this God appears to take very seriously the fact that his beloved creation has become corrupt, has rebelled and is suffering the consequences.

With this premise given, much of the rest of the book (including Part 3) falls into place as a solution to a problem. The Kingdom of God (chapter 7), Jesus as the one who rescues and renews (chapter 8) and New Creation (chapter 16) can be viewed in this light. Other themes include worship (chapter 11), prayer (chapter 12) and the nature of Scripture (chapter 13), to name a few. In each case, Wright keeps things simple, remaining faithful to his goal of helping those who are new to faith or considering following Jesus.

n-t-wright-206x300
Bishop N.T. Wright

A great strength of the book is its stories. Wright is quick to spin a tale, such as the powerful dictator who decided to control the unpredictability of springs and the floods they cause by paving them over. In their place, he introduced a complicated system of pipes from which water would flow. What happens when people realize that there is far better water to drink than the bland brew that comes out of rusty pipes? Religion taps the deep wells that authorities have forbidden and that many have forgotten, springs that – when tapped – can produce unexpected results. Wright (p. 20) concludes:

September 11, 2001, serves as a reminder of what happens when you try to organize a world on the assumption that religion and spirituality are merely private matters, and that what really matters is economics and politics instead. It wasn’t just concrete floors, it was massive towers, that were smashed to pieces that day, by people driven by ‘religious’ beliefs so powerful that the believers were ready to die for them. What should we say? That this merely shows how dangerous ‘religion’ and ‘spirituality’ really are? Or that we should have taken them into account all along?

Where Wright shines is his treatment of the meaning of resurrection. While he fleshes out his eschatology in greater detail in Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection and the Mission of the Church (Harper Collins, 2008), in Simply Christian (p. 114), he previews his later thoughts: “Resurrection isn’t a fancy way of saying ‘going to heaven when you die.’ It is not about ‘life after death’ as such. Rather, it’s a way of talking about being bodily alive again after a period of being bodily dead.” In any case, Wright places his accent in the same place as the New Testament, namely, on resurrection as the cornerstone of Christian faith and the basis of Christian hope.

(Read my review of Surprised by Hope by clicking here.)

Simply Christian isn’t flawless. A survey like Wright’s doesn’t have the space to delve too deeply into topics. One example is his description of King Saul’s reign as a “false start” (p. 77). There’s no acknowledgment that Saul’s reign has been estimated as having lasted between 10 and 40 years. By comparison, David ruled for 40 years (1 Kings 2:11) so Saul’s reign was a healthy duration by any measure.

This is the second book I’ve read by N.T. Wright. His writing are appealing in large part because they major on interpreting the biblical witness, avoiding a speculative, philosophical approach to theology. Though he doesn’t allude to John Wesley, one can’t help but think that Wesley would have been a fan of the former Bishop of Durham.

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Photo credit (N.T. Wright): Patheos.com

 

Ray Bakke’s winsome theological vision for the city

bakkeThe world is moving to the city.

The tipping point came in 2010 when 52% of the world’s population lived in cities. Estimates are that by 2050, 2/3 of planet Earth’s human beings will be urban dwellers.

Ray Bakke is a prominent Chicago pastor and professor who has wrestled with the implications of rapid urbanization for the church. In A Theology as Big as the City (IVP, 1997) – a follow-up to his acclaimed The Urban Christian (IVP, 1988) – Bakke emphatically answers the mistaken notion that the Bible views cities uniformly in a negative light. Instead, he systematically surveys both Old and New Testaments, painting a picture of cities that are the object of divine love and concern. The implication is clear: If God loves cities and the people who live in them, can the church do any less?

While there are many themes raised in Theology as Big as the City, let’s take a look at three key ideas advanced by Bakke:

1) God’s hands are in the mud;

2) Jesus as an agent of personal and social transformation;

3) The role of an urban pastor.

God’s hands are in the mud

Ray Bakke begins his biblical survey of urban themes by looking at the creation narratives in Genesis 1-2. Genesis 2 depicts God as one down in the dirt, using his hands to form Adam from the “dust” of the earth (2:7).

Urban ministry is not aloof but engaged. It acknowledges hard realities yet works toward change. Bakke (p. 37) affirms:

We acknowledge that inner-city neighborhoods are often ugly, and the systems are broken. We all know a healthy person needs a healthy family, and a healthy family needs a healthy community…Yet there’s a sense that if Christ is with me in the midst of the slum, the neighborhood is a slum no longer. For Christ lives in me, and his kingdom agendas confront the neighborhood.

Our motive to work alongside God in “the mud” is not the need that exists. Rather, ministry in cities is fueled because “God has done a work of grace in my life that compels me to share. It overflows”(p. 36).

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Exposing the prosperity Gospel heresy

woodbridgeHeresy (false teaching) often arises when one aspect of the truth is emphasized so much – or tweaked in such a way – that other counter-balancing truths disappear. When it comes to the so-called prosperity Gospel, that truth is simple:

God cares for you.

Jesus certainly teaches this in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). We are of more value to God than the lilies of the field or the birds of the air.

Yet while Jesus talks about basic provision, preachers of the prosperity message go beyond needs to desires. In so doing, they shift the center away from God, putting humans and our wants and wishes for success and wealth at the center. In the end, it is no longer Gospel – good news – but for those disillusioned by its unfulfilled promises, it is bad news, a modified strain of Christian faith that leaves little room for sin, repentance, the Cross, or the place of hardship and suffering in the Christian life.

This is the most important take-away from David Jones’ and Russell Woodbridge’s Health, Wealth & Happiness: Has the Prosperity Gospel Overshadowed the Gospel of Christ? (Kregel, 2011; Kindle edition). The authors identify their subject:

This gospel has been given many names, such as the “name it and claim it” gospel, the “blab it and grab it” gospel, the “health and wealth” gospel, the “word of faith” movement, the “gospel of success,” “positive confession theology,”and, as this book will refer to it, the “prosperity gospel.” No matter what name is used, the teaching is the same. This egocentric gospel teaches that God wants believers to be materially prosperous in the here-and-now (location 118, italics added).

Particularly enlightening was chapter 1. There, Jones and Woodbridge summarize the teachings of the  New Thought Movement. New Thought gained some popularity in U.S. in the late 19th century and first half of the 20th century. Its proponents included Emanuel Phineas Quimby, Ralph Waldo Trine and Norman Vincent Peale (among others). Explaining what the authors call the “five pillars” of New Thought – a distorted view of God, elevation of mind over matter, exalted view of humankind, focus on health/wealth, and a unorthodox view of salvation – the authors make a convincing case that today’s prosperity preachers have recycled many of New Thought’s dubious ideas, including the importance of speaking words to make things come to be. This seems dangerously close to the use of magical incantations.

Though the authors are unafraid to critique the teaching of prosperity preachers – Joel Osteen receives special scrutiny – I appreciated that the book did more than just point out what is wrong with the prosperity message. In the second half of the book, they construct a positive and biblical alternative, including an excellent chapter on the biblical theology of giving.

There are ways in which the book left me unsatisfied. While Jones and Woodbridge rightly debunk the misinterpretation of the “by his wounds you have been healed” slogan (Isaiah 53:5, 1 Peter 2:24 – see location 720), this overlooks that there is a legitimate doctrine of divine healing in Scripture expounded in passages like James 5. Since the word “health” appears in the title of their book, the reader is justified in expecting at least a few more pages to present a more balanced and comprehensive biblical view of the issue. Unfortunately, what they did well when it comes to giving they fail to attempt on the question of health.

A second unquestioned assumption is that all pastors are male. An example of this gender bias appears at location 1708: “An elder or pastor can reasonably expect support from the church that he serves.” Since the authors are from a Baptist background, at one level, their word choice is unsurprising since many Baptists reject the ordination of women. However, a little effort could have avoided this distraction by choosing gender-neutral wording, i.e. “A elder or pastor can reasonably expect congregational support.”  Since the authors are sensitive to the use of gender-inclusive language elsewhere in the book, including the use of the word “humankind” instead of “man” (locations 178, 187, 306), one wishes they had been consistent.

The prosperity message is not just a North American phenomenon but has gained traction elsewhere in the world, including across Africa, introducing an incomplete and shallow version of Christian faith. As diseases like Ebola have ravaged parts of West Africa, one church leader on the ground observed that prosperity teachers have been notably silent. Is this because their message cannot stand up under the sobering realities of pain and suffering? Health, Wealth and Happiness is a well-written book that will open the eyes of many around the world who have bought into a skewed and superficial prosperity message that – though alluring – offers little comfort in the crucible of life.