Book Review: Finding the Right Hills to Die On

I was in Scotland. And over a warm brown ale so thick you could almost eat it with a spoon, I was getting to know a Baptist pastor I’d just met. (When in Scotland . . . !) I was looking forward to discussing one of my favorite 19th century Scottish Baptist preachers, Alexander MacLaren.

My companion outlined his journey in ministry for me, and mentioned how he’d started among the “Strict Baptists” but then later took a church affiliated with the “Particular Baptists” before ultimately finding himself in the non-denominational space. He recalled how he had once been asked if he was affiliated with a third denomination—the “Strict & Particular Baptists.” His smiled as he recounted in a gravelly Scottish highlands brogue his playful reply to that question, “Ahhh, I suppose I am a wee bit strict, but I’m not especially particular.”

That conversation revealed to me that over the last couple of centuries, the Baptists of Great Britain have divided and atomized into ever-more granular particles. (With their collective influence diminished with each divorce.) Today there are Regular Baptists, Union Baptists, General Baptists, United Baptists, Strict Baptists, Particular Baptists, and, of course, Strict & Particular Baptists, just to mention a few of dozens. 

Of course, one can easily trace similarly branching family trees among any and every Protestant denomination. It’s tough to make a credible argument that the Body of Christ is under-fragmented.

It seems there is no more deeply entrenched habit among Christians than to fall out with one another over some difference in doctrine. Many of those differences tend to seem quite minor to the dispassionate outside observer. 

Which brings me to Gavin Ortlund’s important book. 

What is indeed “minor?” And what’s a big deal? Finding the Right Hills to Die On is Ortlund’s valiant and extremely helpful effort to at least provide us some tools for answering those questions.

In the first half of this quick and engaging read, he makes a powerful case for what he calls “Theological Triage.” That is an intentional and thoughtful sorting of differences into Primary, Secondary, and Tertiary. Before that, he outlines the ditches on either side of the path he’s taking us down. Namely, either being too picky or not picky enough. 

The second half is practical application of the principles he set forth in the first half. He then concludes with a short section titled, “A Call to Theological Humility which, alone, is worth the price of admission. Here’s a quote from that conclusion, one that reflects the very humility for which the author is calling: 

In this book I am less concerned with convincing others of the particular judgements I have made and more concerned that, even where we disagree, we do so in a spirit of trembling before the word of God. This attitude is both the ground and the goal of theological triage.

Gavin Ortlund–Finding the Right Hills to Die On

Here’s why you need to read this book. It is the same reason I needed to.

Most of us have heard the noble bromide about doctrinal differences: “In the essentials, unity. In the non-essentials, liberty. In all things, charity.” 

All heads tend to nod when it is uttered. What few believers know is who first expressed those words. Or when. It was an early 17th century Lutheran theologian named Rupertus Meldenius. He wrote those words in the middle of the Thirty Years War—the conflict that soaked the soil of central Europe in blood over sectarian differences. Estimates of deaths range between five million and eight million souls. 

Which hills to die on indeed. 

What’s the Attraction? How to Comprehend the Incomprehensible.

As you know, last week Hamas revealed itself to be “ISIS 2.0.” As you also know, Hamas’ surprise attack on Israel on the 50th Anniversary of the “Yom Kippur War,” and the savagery that followed, sparked celebratory rallies in places like London, NYC, and Sydney. (As well as countless college campuses.)

Because of where I live and what I do for a living, I travel among people who are largely conservative and Christian. So, I’ve seen and heard their questions everywhere recently. Questions I’ve heard from my bride over the last week. Those questions?

Why would people who say they value:

  • tolerance for LGBTQQ+ individuals;
  • equality for women;
  • Abortion access;
  • Socialist economics; and
  • democracy (Now!)

. . . side with Hamas–an Islamic terrorist organization–over Israel? Why would many Leftist organizations in America–particularly those on college campuses–try to rationalize and sanctify the barbarous murder of civilians, including women, infants, and the elderly?

Especially given that Israeli society embodies all of those values in that bulleted list above.

I recently described Tel Aviv and Haifa to a friend as cross between NYC without the skyscrapers and South Beach, Miami.

In a saner world, American Progressives would view Israel as a shining example of what they want America to be. But that is not the world we’re living in. (Below: Gay pride parade in Israel) Again, why?

Gay pride parade in Israel.

Seemingly every Christian I talk to, my sweet wife included, is bewildered and stunned at every image of a Pro-Palestine protest and every instance of seemingly intellgient political leaders who just can’t bring themselves to call murder and barbarism what they really are. Their jaws hang open as LGTBQQ+ activists proclaim support for a medieval system that would happily kill them and all their friends if given the opportunity.

They listen in disbelief as Harvard professors and congresswomen and professional talking heads describe Hamas’ invaders as “resistance” to an “occupation” that actually ended in 2005 with Ariel Sharon’s catastrophic return of Gaza to Palestinian control.

Many are quick to attribute it all to “anti-semitism” but I don’t think it’s nearly as simple as that. The ancient impulse of anti-semitism has spiritual roots that go back to Satan’s rage at a remnant of Israel bringing His destroyer, the Redeemer, into the world. But anti-Semitism is merely a thread in a much more colorful tapestry that is now on full display. To explain what I mean, allow me to regroup and take you back to last Monday.

Sassy Weather Apps and Apologists for Butchery

Monday, October 9 was Columbus Day; and Hamas’ Iran-funded invasion of Israel by air, land, and sea was roughly 48 hours old.

Now, I need to explain that I have a quirky weather app. It’s called Carrot and when you install it you can dial-in precisly how snarky you want it to be, on a scale from “bland,” to “somewhat snarky,” all the way up to “brutal.” I, of course, chose the “Snarky” setting. On typical days, the current weather summary includes a remark like this one, displayed just now as I’m writing this post:

These random comments are usually just goofy. But on Monday morning . . . I wish I had screen grabbed it . . . I launched the app and it said something along the lines of, “It’s Columbus Day. Let’s celebrate the mass murder of millions of people!”

The connection may not be immediately evident, but the view about Christopher Columbus tapped out by the clever twenty-something employee at the company which created Carrot, is very much of a piece with the views of the very groups that view Hamas as the righteous “resistance” in the current war. They have all been drinking from the same poisoned well–both philosophically and spiritually.

It’s groups like: The 1619 Project, BLM, Antifa, Democracy Now!, the mega-corporate champions of DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion), militant LGBT alphabet soup orgs, the identity poltics obsessed, the “de-colonisers,”and the usual stealth marxists in the major universities and teachers’ unions that have been chugging water from that well for a while now. A couple of generations of young people were raised on it.

The view that Columbus was unambiguously evil and the protests in New York, Sydney, and London celebrating the slaughter of grandmothers and babies in Israel are tiles in the same mosaic picture.

Want to understand why the members of BLM Chicago and Harvard Pride hate Israel so much they’ll cheer the slaughter of infants. Settle in. Stick with me and the world will likely make more sense to you than it does right now.

Clash of Civilizations

Right after 9/11 many smart people suggested reading one particular book if you wanted to understand why Al Qaeda militants flew airplaines into buildings in New York and Washington D.C.. So I did. I’m glad I did so.

The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order by Samuel Huntington came out only five weeks before the 9/11 attacks.

In it, Huntington points out that the world could (and still can) be viewed as a collection of “civilzations.” China, India, Russia, and Subsaharan Africa are all representative of individual civilizations.

There is an Islamic civilization that spans the Middle East, North Africa, and parts of Southeastern Asia. And then there is Western Civilization, centered in Europe, with a specific expression of it residing in England, Canada, the United States, Australia, and New Zealand.

All civilizations, including ours, spring from a religious/spiritual foundation.

  • Indian . . . Hindu
  • African . . . Animism
  • Chinese . . . Confucianism and Folk Religion
  • Islamic . . . (take a guess)
  • Western Civilization . . . Christianity

It is significant that Winston Churchill used the terms Western Civilzation and Christian Civilization interchangebly. He understood something that many people, including many Christians, do not. Namely that the spread and deep rooting of Christianity across Europe ultimately created the greatest conditions for human flourishing the planet had ever seen.

In other posts (like this one) I’ve pointed to the work of academics like Rodney Stark and Tom Holland, who have demonstrated brilliantly and persuasively how Christianity made modern science and progress possible. Christianity leads to human flourishing because God is for human flourishing. It is He who so loved the world . . .

Christianity produced a civilization that, as it matured: found slavery abhorrent, elevated the status of women, fostered social mobility (the ability of lower class individuals to rise to higher levels through hard work and ingenuity), and raised living standards for all.

For reasons rooted in the “Unseen Realm” of the spirit, different religions produce different types of civilizations. Even different forms of Christianity produce varying types of cultures or civilizations. You may have noticed that Roman Catholic nations such as those in southern Europe and Latin America get levels of prosperity and stability that are different from the nations with Protestant foundations. Likewise, the Russian Orthodox version of Christianity produced a few of the benefits seen elsewhere, but not all of them.

So let me cut to the big thesis statement of this post and then follow it up with some explanation and defense: Israel is hated by Hamas for the same reason it is despised by American, British, and Australian leftists. They detest Western Civilization, and . . .

Israel is an island of Western Civilization in a sea of pagan, Islamic Civilization.

Which is why the rallying cry for Palestinian extremists and terrorist organizations is: “Palestine Must Be Free, From the River to the Sea.” Over the decades, Palestinian leaders have repeatedly been offered a “Two State Solution” in which they could could operate as a sovereign, autonomous nation, living in peace beside Israel. They have consistently rejected those solutions.

No, for them the only acceptable solution is the removal of all aspects of modernity and Western Civilization from land once controlled by Islamic Civilization.

It’s an expression of the larger “clash of civilizations” that has defined much of the world for the last 30 years. Western (Christian) civilization VS Islamic civilization. And although not expressly “Christian,” Israel is an island of Wester Civ. In a sea of Islamic Civ. And therefore must be eradicated.

That explains why Muslims across the Middle East despise Israel. But it also holds the key to why the BLM-ers and DEI-ers and 2SLGBTQQ+-ers and “decolonisers” in America despise Israel, too.

They all are operating from a (spiritually rooted) deception about Western Civilization. They view it as uniquely evil. They view it as the source of all oppression and slavery and stolen-land occupying.

Again, the roots to all of this are spiritual and connected to a spiritual conflict that has been underway since Jesus, having just restored “all authority in heaven and on earth” to Himself, sat down at the right hand of the Father in order to observe the making of “His enemies a footstool.” (See Matthew 28:18; Hebrews 10:13; and I Corinthians 15:24-27)

This conflict has been playing out for nearly 2000 years.

This hell-spawned hatred for Christian Civilization is the same thing that causes leftists (including feminist orgs and LGBTQ orgs) in the West to by sympathetic to Iran, even though Iran hangs gays and forces women to wear the hijab. And why both the Obama and Biden administrations have fallen all over themselves to cozy up to Iran. (It’s very much the Apostle John’s “spirit of antichrist” that he said was already in the world when he was writing his epistles.)

I don’t view the world through the lens of race, but BLM/Antifa/DEI does–obsessively and completely. Their narrative views Western Civilazation as “White” and as the root of all evil in the world. In their delusion, Western Civ. is always the “Oppressor” and any non-white cultures must be “The Oppressed.”

Take note that the Israeli-Palestinian situation fits this narrative perfectly. The same feminist and gay groups that side with Iran, side with Palestine against Israel.

This is why they furiously hate the very system that has produced all of the things they claim to value. It is why they hack furiously at the branch they, and all of us, are sitting on.

None of that makes sense unless you understand the spiritual dynamics of the (anti-christ) anti-Western cult. And make no mistake . . . it’s a religious cult.

Yes, it’s distressing to watch. But there is comfort in knowing that God determined long ago how this conflict will end. And He is as patient as He is kind.