Showing posts with label Book Reviews. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Book Reviews. Show all posts

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Trolls and Truth review

I just finished reading an interesting book called Trolls and Truth: 14 Realities About Today's Church that We Don't Want To See, by Jimmy Dorrell. Dorrell is the pastor of the Church Under the Bridge in Waco, Texas. The church meets literally under a bridge year round, and is home to many of the poorest in the city. I've heard a lot of good about the church from friends who've attended, so I looked forward to reading the book.

This one is a short read - for anyone, not just for me. It's 215 pages long, with very generous margins and equally large text size. The chapters are short and concise, and Dorrell's style lends itself to quick reading. It's light and conversational, without much fluff.

Each of the 14 truths presented is introduced through a story whose subject is a currently or formerly poverty-stricken individual, many of them mentally ill. Dorrell uses them and their stories to illustrate the Biblical principles he is trying to communicate, and to show how a church implementing those principles can transform a community. Dorrell's principles - from "Looks Don't Matter" to "Use Your Gifts," and from "Fight for the Least Ones" to "The Rich Need the Poor" - are all Biblical, and Dorrell frequently references the Old Testament prophets. That's hardly surprising since his message and Amos' are much the same.

Dorrell does an excellent and admirable job dealing with some difficult subjects. He confronts and condemns racism, American individualism, and other sins from elitism to vanity. It's clear he passionately hates these sins and the way they've influenced American evangelicalism. I often found myself agreeing with his analysis of American churchgoers' selfishness and egoism, and I strongly agreed with his call for the church to do Christlike work in the community. If the church were rightly discharging its responsibilities, many of the homeless, poverty-stricken, and mentally ill would find their lives significantly bettered. He accurately comments that the church has often failed to reach those people from discomfort or laziness. He also accurately analyses the other reason for that failure: a backlash against the social gospel and liberalism of the early twentieth century.

That reaction is one we find ourselves in danger of today, with many of the emergent crowd peddling the same social gospel. Dorrell's book isn't a social gospel book, but it addresses the same issues. Because of that, it would be easy to dismiss his message. Doing so would be a problem, though: he's right, by and large. The evangelical church very much needs to step up its interactions with the poor, and on more than a Thanksgiving-to-Christmas timescale or commitment level. Dorrell hits the nail right on the head when he notes that many American churches - with their multi-million dollar buildings but insufficient money for outreach to the poor - are frighteningly similar to ancient Israel. There are exceptions, of course: good churches doing good works. On the whole, however, self-proclaimed evangelicals are not generous with their time or money: they're still caught up in the lure of the American dream. So while there is a danger of tumbling down the slope of the social gospel, we need to make sure we don't minimize the importance of doing good works in love of God and men.

James reminds us that true religion is caring for orphans and widows. Paul gave detailed instructions to young pastors on care for the widows of the church. Old Testament prophet after Old Testament prophet proclaims God's coming justice on Israel and Judah for forsaking the destitute and abusing the helpless. The apostle John reminds us that "whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him" (John 3.36, emphasis mine). Those are significant commands to care for those in need. We should not ignore Dorrell (and Scripture!) because others have lost sight of Christ in their pursuit of good works. We should simply be wise.

Truth and Trolls did have a few problems, one relatively minor and the other two more significant. The minor issue is straightforward: in his passion for helping the poor and homeless, Dorrell seems to devalue other approaches and other areas of social engagement. He makes several comments about "outdated hymns" and standard modes of teaching, contrasting them with the (apparently) better practices at his own church. I don't have any problem with his approaches, but I do have a problem with his dismissal of others' approaches. He also rags a little on evangelicals' engagement in what he calls "extreme right-wing politics," by which he means "the fight against abortion and gay right" (p. 154). While I acknowledge that the church can sometimes get too caught up in those political battles, I also recognize their importance. Dorrell doesn't seem to.

His criticism of the battle against abortion confuses me. Truth and Trolls' theme is that "our ecclesiology must be upended by the 'least of these': the hungry, imprisoned, sick, and stranger' (p. 29). The unborn, most helpless of all, certainly deserve to be in that list. Unlike the sad but hopeful stories of his 'trolls,' aborted babies have no stories at all. I would have been a little disappointed if he had not brought the issue up, but I was actively bothered when he criticized the church's work there. It seems that, in his passion and desire to see the church Biblically ministering to the poor, Dorrell has minimized the importance of other battles. I hope that he comes to recognize that the fight for the unborn and caring for the poor are not mutually exclusive. They're complementary.

My second concern is with the book's handling of Scripture. In the introduction, for example, he quotes Isaiah 43:19a, "See, I am doing a new thing!" (p. 23) in reference to the Church Under the Bridge. (It's actually about God's provision for His people in spite of their sin.) Later, he quotes from Revelation 3:17, "Because you are warm-neither hot nor cold-I am about to spit you out of my mouth. You say, 'I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.' But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked'" (p. 32). He fails to note that the pressing concern for Christ in this passage was not wealth or poverty, but idolatry: the church had come to rely on its wealth instead of on God, leading them to be lukewarm. This doesn't hurt Dorrell's thesis, but it doesn't really support it, either. A few counterexamples sprinkle the text - he did well with Isaiah 58's call for a true fast that cares for the poor, for example - but his overall treatment of Scripture was lacking.

Finally, in a book that purports to depict how the church can transform lives and communities, especially of the downtrodden, I was astounded to find no clear declaration of the gospel or its importance. It's mentioned throughout the book - but the mentions are just that; there's no explanation of Christ's saving power or redeeming work. People's lives are transformed not by our good works on their behalf but by the redeeming work of the Holy Spirit. The body of Christ is certainly obligated by Scripture and the love that Christ has planted in our hearts to touch this fallen world. But it is dangerous to place too much emphasis on helping people in this world without doing all we can to win them to eternal life. People's deepest and most important need is Jesus Christ

I don't think Dorrell actually lives, believes, or even teaches that way. The references scattered throughout the book suggest that he and I are actually on the same page about a lot of things: easy-believism and conversionism, consumerism, and so on. Unfortunately, the book never deals straightforwardly with Jesus, the cross, or any of the direct implications on how we engage in serving the poor. That's too bad, because dealing with those topics would have made this decent book an excellent book.

The message the book offers is good and much-needed, but it's a bit incomplete. Dorrell's critiques are mostly accurate, with only a few missteps. He fails to consistently handle Scripture well, though, and he fails to communicate the centrality of the gospel in transforming lives: the most important part of our social engagement. He is certainly right that the church needs to engage in this area more effectively, and his analysis of ways that we can involve ourselves in serving the lowly and downtrodden is very helpful. The book is worth taking a look at if you haven't thought about these issues, but it must be complemented with a liberal dose of the Christ-centered gospel.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The Blessed Life review

Expect to see significantly increased blogging output over the next several weeks. I'll explain why in a future post. You'll just have to wait and find out.

A small aside: I'm trying very hard to be more concise. Twitter is helping: having 140 characters to say something meaningful certainly makes me think harder.


I'm going to try to update my book review format. I've been using the same basic approach to book reviews for three years, and while it's worked all right, I want to have a bit more freedom in approach.

The Blessed Life by Robert Morris, pastor of Gateway Church in Southlake, Texas, is about God's financial blessings for your life. The basic message of the book is accurate and worth hearing, but it's clouded and there are enough issues that I can't really recommend it. It's relatively short, and even reading it carefully for the purposes of a review, it probably only took me about two and a half hours to read from start to finish. Even with the addendum at the back, the book is just 217 generously formatted pages long: 12 short chapters and a brief afterword.

Morris' thesis is that God wants all of His children to lead a blessed life. In particular, he writes that the blessed life is very definitely financially blessed. I should immediately clarify that this isn't prosperity gospel, per se. The book has issues, some of which I'll describe below, but it isn't just another "Give and you'll be rich!" scheme. There are some very good biblical principles laid out throughout the book, and it's clear that Morris opposes the prosperity gospel.

Morris focuses on giving generously and sacrificially, and he emphasizes that God is our provider. He repeatedly emphasizes how God takes care of His people's needs. The book issues a call to stop believing that if we just budget carefully enough we'll always be secure. Instead we should relinquish our tight grasp on our money and give freely as God leads - up to and including every last thing we own. It's a bold challenge, and an important one. Morris points to Jesus' reminder that if God cares for birds and flowers, how much more can we rely on Him to provide for our needs? So then, we should give without holding back; we should give to whoever asks and expect nothing in return. We should gladly give everything we own when God calls us to. He has provided all we have, and He can provide more as we need it. Morris backs this up both Scripturally and evidentially from his own life. (The evidence is good, but it has a downside. See below.)

Mr. Morris and I part ways in two places, however. First, his use of Scripture throughout the book varies between good and very bad. In one chapter, he does an excellent job of developing Jesus' teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, using sound expositional teaching. Elsewhere, though, his use of Scripture is more questionable. (Some of them are simply strange, like his completely decontextualized quote from Song of Solomon.)

Second, he takes his thesis that God will reward those who are generous givers - with which I fully agree - and then moves forward to say that giving leads to "Guaranteed Financial Results" (the title of the last chapter). He writes, "... I can tell you without hesitation that if you will apply the principles I've outlined in these chapters, you will get remarkable, positive financial results—guaranteed." He has a more Biblical framework in mind than it might seem: he follows by arguing that giving is important because it does work in our hearts, which is what God is really after. I agree with that, but I do not think that we will always find ourselves financially blessed simply because we give. I believe God will meet our needs, but the overwhelming poverty of many generous believers throughout history and Scripture runs contrary to his argument.

The Psalms frequently cry out that the wicked prosper and the good do not. The prophets repeatedly make much of the fact that wicked rich men are crushing the poor. The widow in her generous giving of two mites did not suddenly become wealthy, and Christ never said she would.

How then do we reconcile Jesus teaching that when we give we will receive with the reality that we do not always receive greater money than we have given? I don't know the exact details, but I know that the rewards we are promised are not merely earthly, but heavenly. Morris notes this, but only once. The book repeatedly emphasizes financial rewards in this world, and the lack of a heavenly perspective is a sore loss.

On a different note, Morris repeatedly denies any pride, but spends the book recounting all the ways and times he and his family have been used mightily by God. If there were a more even balance between these and other stories, this might not seem so bad, but every chapter has several examples of his generosity. By contrast, I am reminded of Jesus' teaching in the same Sermon on the Mount passages that Morris frequently quoted:
“Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.

“Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. (Matthew 6:1-4)

Scripture's emphasis is on secrecy, not boasting. Morris says "Believe me, I'm not [boasting]" (p. 125), and I believe he meant it. If so, he needs to recognize that he would seem lest boastful if he focused less on himself, more on others, and above all more on Scripture.

Perhaps the oddest part of the book was his elaborate discussion on the Spirit of Mammon. For most of a chapter, he discusses an individual spirit of Mammon that he claims is "on" money unless the Spirit of God is, referencing Luke 16:13. He claims there is an individual spirit named Mammon that prevents money from multiplying for the kingdom unless money is actively submitted to God. The first problem here is that he builds his case for a "spirit of mammon" not from Scripture but from Milton's Paradise Lost, which is fine poetry, and not always terrible theology, but hardly an authority. Second, the use of the word "mammon" here is misleading. All modern translations generally use "wealth," as that's all the word means. Finally, there is no Biblical basis for his claim that there is an individual Spirit of Mammon. I don't doubt that there are demons that specialize in leading people astray via greed and money. That being said, I see no warrant at all from Scripture for Morris claim that "[in] the Biblical sense of the word, mammon is the spirit that rests on money. Did you know that all money has a spirit on it? It either has the Spirit of God on it or the spirit of mammon" (p. 77). Men's hearts are led astray by demonic lies or led rightly by the Holy Spirit. Money and electronic numbers are just paper and electrons.

Strangely, Morris almost immediately contradicts his previous argument by quoting Jesus teaching that we are to use "unrighteous mammon" to win friends for ourselves to serve the Kingdom, and that we are to be faithful in the unrighteous mammon if we wish to be trusted with real treasure. Jesus would certainly never command us to make use of an evil spirit to accomplish anything. Given how direct Christ is here, just verses after Morris' proof text for his Spirit of Mammon, he ends up backtracking and agreeing with Jesus' message. The result is a confusing mess. While this points to a need for good editing, it also shows his failure to build his case on a good theological and Scriptural foundation.

This and other misuses of Scripture were nearly the worst problems. Scripture speaks clearly about finances; there is no need to add or invent more evidence for what it says. This failing is all the sadder because so much of this book is good. We live in a church culture that often throws tithing out with ceremonial washings, so his emphasis both on tithing and giving beyond our tithes was refreshing.

My greatest disappointment here was that Morris never took a moment to point out that, financial blessings aside, no reward will ever compare with knowing Christ. This was a book on the blessed life, but it completely misses what Christ calls blessed: knowing God. Abundant life, eternal life, is knowing God and the one He sent. Finances are petty distractions in comparison. They are important, as Morris rightly notes, as a gauge of our hearts. But Morris never stopped to note that Jesus Christ is our real reward for faithfulness in this life.

I find it very difficult to sum up my thoughts on this book. Morris' passion for people with gifts of giving is evident. His love of the body of Christ is clear. His love of God is plain to see. His message is important. Christians do need to value and practice generosity and giving more, and God does delight in our joyful giving. He does reward, though most of the rewards are eternal. If Morris were simply another preacher of the prosperity gospel, it would be easy to dismiss his missteps as part of his misguided theology, but his underlying theology regarding finances is not the issue.

The real problems here are over-application and a lack of Christ-centeredness. What has been true in his life is not universally true. Many Christians will give generously and live in relative (or true) poverty some or all their lives. Paul's life alone is evidence of that.
Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me. (Philippians 4:11-13)

The antidote to this problem is simple: a deeper reliance on Scripture itself, without recourse to anecdote and misinterpretation.

More importantly, we must always find our joy in Christ alone, no matter whether we are richly blessed or utterly destitute in this age. Our reward is knowing Him, above any other blessing He gives. That is the point that must be made, and it's the point that Morris completely missed. The real blessed life is to know Christ, no matter our circumstances.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

A Grief Observed review

Tonight I finished reading A Grief Observed, a compilation of C. S. Lewis' journals following the death of his wife, Joy Gresham. The book was first published (interestingly, under a pseudonym) in 1961. It is a short book, only 76 pages of actual text and another twenty of foreword and introduction. But it is a profound, and while not without its problems, an immensely valuable book. Lewis deals as thoroughly as one can with the topic of grieving. His intent was not to write a book on grief - for he had already done that, in The Problem of Pain, some years earlier, and these were but journal entries - but rather to give himself an outlet in which to vent some of the emotion and thought that so overcame him in that difficult period.

Lewis began his journals in the midst of deep grief and with considerable anger at God, questioning quite deeply the goodness of God and fundamentals of our relationship with Him. He ends the book in quite a different place, a very great journey to have occurred only in his heart. (In some sense, I think all the greatest journeys are within our hearts.) Each chapter marks a distinct stage in his grieving. The distinctions between individual entries in his journal are rarely clear; when they are it is because he notes that he wrote the above section an evening before or something similar. In that regard, the writing flows surprisingly well; there is immense continuity throughout the text despite the breaks in his writing.

A good deal of that must be laid at the feet of Lewis' superb prose. As elsewhere in his writing, Lewis demonstrates here - even in his journals - a masterful command of the English language, and not merely of word but of phrase and thought and metaphor. The language he employed often surprised me with its depths of insight and analogy. A few of the more prominent metaphors resonate deeply with me and continue to stir up thought and imagery even having laid the book aside. As I noted above, there is a distinct sense of continuity to the book, and a very clear narrative of Lewis' emotional and spiritual progress throughout the book.

Lewis' spiritual journey here is one to follow and learn from. He began in a very dark place indeed - questioning if God is no more than the Cosmic Sadist (his words) and lashing out in fierce anger at Him. The book's pages open with a deep self-centered-ness. His first reaction to Joy Gresham's passing was - as it would be for most of us, I suspect - not any sort of joy or contentment for her, but deep bereavement and a deep desire to have her back. For a man so deeply passionate about delighting in and enjoying God, this is a striking fact. That he then slowly moves through his pain, dealing with the passion and the intellectual problems and returning more and more to love - of her and of God - is a mark of how deep and securely rooted his faith was.

That he questioned his faith and indeed considered it no more than a house of cards marks how deep his understanding of God's work was and was becoming. For so indeed our faith is: a house of cards, built on the air, until God knocks it down and calls us to build a real house on a real foundation. As Lewis notes, so God does over and over again until we are really built on Christ.

It is worth noting three caveats on my otherwise thoroughgoing endorsement of the book. First, and this may only pertain to my edition of the text, there is a foreword by Madeleine L'Engle. Despite her considerable literary talents - I have thoroughly enjoyed much of her fiction over the years - she is hardly an orthodox Christian. Her introduction, short though it is, is filled with considerable nonsense of the postmodern variety. This is readily enough dismissed or skipped, but I thought it worth mentioning nonetheless.

Second, and more important, is the fact that Lewis himself was not perfectly orthodox. There are hints here, as elsewhere, of his struggle with a sort of universalism. And in a more general sense, as a practicing Anglican, he fell on a rather different view of various questions than we Protestants do. In particular, Lewis' thoughts on purgatory are rather pronounced throughout the book, and though they are never the point, he does spend a fair amount of time reflecting on his reasons for believing purgatory not only to exist but also to be necessary.

Finally, this is a book that requires considerable discernment and conviction. I also believe it may well be an excellent book for people questioning their faith. Lewis grappled very seriously with very difficult questions about the Christian view of the world and of God, and the early chapters are at times difficult to read. His formidable intellect was, for that brief period of time, set in very deep anger at God, and it shows. However, the final state he came to is as encouraging as the early material is discouraging. He thoroughly embraced his faith in Jesus Christ, and speaks clearly and profoundly of the glorious mystery that is belief.

I heartily recommend the book. Go read it. (Just do it discerningly!)

Sunday, February 1, 2009

How Christianity Changed the World review

At long last, another book review. This afternoon, after starting it some four months ago, I finished reading Alvin Schmidt's How Christianity Changed the World. The book was published in 2001 under the title Under the Influence and republished in 2004 under its current title. It sets out to document the many ways in which Jesus Christ and the religion founded in His name have changed the world. In the sense that the book chronicles almost every area impacted by Christianity, it succeeds. As a readable book, however, it fails, as I will detail.

The text is just over 400 pages long in the trade paperback edition I have - a fairly lengthy book, as befits a book attempting to deal with the topic at hand. The book is written in an attempt at a balance between an educated and conversational style. The text is neatly organized, and while there is not much coherence between chapters or even sections, they are neatly organized for reference. He moves systematically through areas that Christianity has influenced, covering people transformed, sanctity of human life, sexual morality, women's rights, charity and compassion, hospitals and health care, education, labor and economics, science, democracy, the abolition of slavery, art, music, literature, and additional influence in the form of holidays, words, symbols, and expressions. In each of these categories - covered in a chapter - Schmidt moves through the topic's history, from the advent of Christianity or just before our earliest records of Christian influence, and compiles a list of the contributions of Christianity in that particular topic.

The book's primary merit is that it demonstrates many of the ways that Christ's life has impacted the world. In particular, the early chapters do an excellent job of showing how the gospel transforms lives and thereby impacts the culture in which those lives are set.

The books demerits are as follows:

First, Schmidt's style. As noted above, the language seemed to be an attempt at mixing conversational speech with a more academic vocabulary. He would likely have been better off simply going for a conversational or an academic tone, because the actual style is rather frustrating: it's conversational in tone but overly flowery in its prose. I'm certainly no critic of flowery prose, so long as it's being put to good use. Here, it wasn't, and it simply ended up feeling over-the-top.

Annoyingly, Schmidt repeats his thesis in some way at the end of nearly every section - and the sections are often mere paragraphs long. Obviously the reason he is positing this example or that is that he feels they support his claim; repeating ad nauseum that such-and-such a thing, person, event, etc. clearly reflects Christian influence was both Rather than helping his writing's cogency, however, this simply made it feel choppy. I expected from the book an historical analysis of the ways Christianity shaped culture and history and thus the lasting impact Christ's life has had. I expected from this a demonstration of the transforming power of the gospel. What I found instead was essentially a collection of facts and conjectures about how this person or that thing might have been influenced by Christianity. A few of his points I simply disagreed with - they were stretching, and without any good reason to do so; grasping at straws doesn't help one's case here.

Next, the lack of coherence is extremely frustrating. One might be tempted to think that the repetition would help the coherence of the book, and while it does reiterate the overall theme, the actual problem here is that the sections don't flow together effectively. The main difficulty is Schmidt's sectional approach: rather than looking historically and observing how Christianity grew and flowered over the span of the last 2 millenia, he covers the same spans of history over and over again. This leads to a breakdown in cogency and some not insignificant repetition (he covers Kepler's New Astronomy and Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin twice, for example).

The book also struggles to affirm the good work of Christ in parts of the church Schmidt differs with theologically. He criticizes Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and Calvinists throughout the book, making half-hearted apologies on their behalf at times and at others simply attacking them as wrong. While I certainly have my points of difference with different groups of Christians, I have no problem acknowledging that the Eastern Orthodox and Catholic traditions have, by and large, done a better job with the arts than their Protestant brothers. While I certainly have no problem in dealing with those theological points of difference, there is a place and a time for them; a catalog of the ways Christianity has changed the world probably isn't it.

This struck me as particularly ironic given his own criticisms of various ways in which Christians are seeking to contribute, particularly in the arts. For example, he outright dismisses all "hard" rock as automatically anti-Christian. While I certainly share his appreciation for classical art and hymnody, making some sort of distinction - as he does - between "hard" and "soft" rock is simply silly. He quotes a virulent anti-jazz author from the 1930's, comments that he may have overreacted slightly to jazz, and then proceeds to argue that the comments are certainly applicable to all of rock music. I'm not a fan of rock. I also believe that medium impacts message. But to outright declare that a given form of music (or art, for that matter) is inherently anti-Christian strikes me as not only incorrect (which I believe it is) but also pointless.

These preceding two points can be summed up by my ultimate major criticism of the book: rather than being an informative work on the historical and sociological import of Christianity, How Christianity Changed the World ends up being primarily polemical. In nearly every chapter, Schmidt takes the opportunity to criticize this or that modern trend against Christianity. In particular, he seems thoroughly affronted by the postmodernization of America and its slow release of Christian morality. While I share his sorrow over this point, and think it will only bring the nation harm to walk away from a Christian morality, I find this troubles me for two reasons.

First, I don't think it serves the book itself terribly well: the pages would be put to better use simply showing how Christianity has changed and continues to change the world, rather than polemicizing. Second, and more importantly, I think it reflects a sad state of affairs among evangelical circles: that we are more concerned about losing our influence in the public square and about the possibility of some minor degree of persecution than we are faith-filled that God is moving and capable of bringing redemption no matter how terrible the circumstances. I do not believe it coincidence that the church in Europe has all but died, the church in America is dying, and the church in Africa, Latin America, and Asia - all places of difficulty at best and fierce opposition at worst - is growing marvelously.

In short, this is not a book I recommend. I've no doubt that Schmidt is an extremely knowledgeable and competent man. It certainly took immense time to compile the information presented here, and his background as a sociologist shows through. Unfortunately, though, that's part of the problem: this book became more a compilation of interesting sociological insights than a tracing of the impact of Christ's work in the world. How Christianity Changed the World has considerable pertinent information in it - but it also has a good deal of extraneous information and grasping at straws in it (the last chapter, on holidays and words, being a particular example of the former, and a number of agnostics who sort of reflect Christianity's impact being good examples of the latter). Christianity is stronger than that, and the deep desire to hold onto political capital reflected in this and other similar books saddens me immensely. I would much prefer that we were consumed with the ability of the gospel to change hearts than with the ability of the office to change laws. If people wish to lie about Christ, His good news, and His church, we ought not be affronted. After all, He told us as much would come to be. Rather, we ought to proclaim the truth in love and boldness, not ourselves thinking we need to somehow rescue the faith from its persecutors.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Desire review

Last week I read John Eldredge's Desire: The Journey We Must Take to Find the Life God Offers, finishing it Saturday afternoon. The book is a 2007 republication under new title of the same text, first published in 2000 under the title The Journey of Desire. My last review, of Captivating, was by the same author with his wife; the books are significantly different, however. The theme of the book can be summed up from the introduction:
Desire is powerful. One of the most powerful forces in our lives.
At least, it was meant to be....
How you handle your heart's desire will in great measure determine what comes of your life. So let us take the journey together. (pp. vii, ix)

In Desire, Eldredge deals forthrightly with the condition of our heart, examining the various ways in which our hearts have been damaged and the ways in which Christ restores us. His thesis is that desire can be as powerful a force for good as it often is for evil, and that it is the corruption of our desire that causes such grievous wounds in the world - not desires in and of themselves.

The text is 212 pages long, broken into 12 chapters, each headed with quotes from a wide variety of thinkers. (The first chapter, for example, includes quotes from both Pascal and U2.) As is common in the Christian market these days, each chapter is neatly subdivided into sections, with descriptive headers on the sections. The ongoing analysis of the problems and solutions of desire are mixed with anecdotes from various sources - both those successfully using their desires to glorify God and those caught in the sinful consequences of desire unsurrendered to Christ. Chapters build on previously explained points, and the questions posed and answered in each chapter find further resolution later in the book. The book is framed with an interesting story of a sea lion stranded far from the sea as metaphor for our lives, in front of about half the chapters.

The merits of the book are as follows:

John Eldredge speaks in a friendly tone to the reader. Much of his writing here is lightly conversational; the rest is narrative and story. The mix is well-balanced, and his stories are always clearly opened and closed. More importantly, they are often profound. It's a trait that's lacking in too many Christian books these days. When books content themselves with mere illustration, rather than letting illustration come secondary to meaning, they lose a lot. Eldredge doesn't make this mistake, and so the text has not only a lot of examples but a lot of truth communicated through them.

Desire is sprinkled with numerous insightful quotes - from Pascal to MacDonald to various bands - and filtered through Eldredge's own painful loss of a close and dear friend. This latter point gives the text a warmth and emotional depth that is uncommon in the Christian "message" books I've read. Because the entire text comes with this as context, it also has an unusual weight about it. Eldredge knows what he's doing as an author; he successfully leverages this into true sympathy from the reader, and then catapults from that sympathy into agreement. This could be a problem were Eldredge feeding the reader falsehoods, but (as I'll address in a moment), it's a good thing because he isn't doing any such thing.

The organization of thought in this book was particularly well done: there was a good flow from section to section. The text draws on ideas from previous chapters while maintaining momentum, keeping from getting bogged down. Each chapter itself has a well-organized flow of thought, which helps this, and there is a good mix of anecdote and apropo quote and analysis. Even his sea-lion narrative was well-placed and well-organized. All that coalesces into what is simply a very well-written book.

This text is thoroughly centered on Biblical principles. I went in a bit skeptical, because I'd just finished reading Captivating - a book I was not terribly comfortable with theologically. I came out satisfied, though a bit mystified as to how Eldredge could be so accurate in this book, and so far off in Captivating. To be clear, Eldredge is not doing an exposition of Scripture in this text, but he never veers off from Biblical principles and truths. Indeed, of everything I've read of his, this book rang most true with me, both at a personal level and with regard to its faithfulness to the word of God.

He struck at some fundamental truths about the nature of our existence, and about desire itself, in the course of the book. Notably, he addressed and corrected the lie that desires themselves are the problem. It is our fallenness that is the problem, our aptitude to being consumed by the desire and becoming an addict. The desire itself is meant to bless and indeed to turn us to God. In what is ultimately a fairly surprising comparison, a lot of Eldredge's points here resonate strongly with some of the points made by John Piper in Desiring God: our great delight and our chief desire is to be toward God Himself. When that is true, we are free to delight in and enjoy all our other desires, because they no longer rule us: they are instead submitted to Him and His ways. Eldredge faithfully addressed the problems of addiction - and did a particularly good job of getting at the root of addiction - as well as encouraging the reader to delight in desire properly surrendered to God. In all of this, he never loses his biblical focus, and while Scripture is not quoted at length, it is referenced with some frequency; and the vast majority of other quotes are from great Christian thinkers.

There are a few minor demerits. At one point, Eldredge makes a reference to cutting away all the legalism and tradition, and his explanation could be construed as a criticism of the forms and traditions of church. Insofar as people may be tempted to hold to the forms and traditions either for their own sakes or for a sense of legalism, I agree. We must be cautious here, though: much of form is designed to turn us back to God, and while it is not sacred, we should be careful in our decisions regarding form. When he follows this with a description of his own year spent away from formal church attendance, I am concerned that readers may take this as license to abandon the fellowship of believers. He mentions this briefly but in a place of significance, but he counters by noting that he didn't step away from his accountability or his community, only from his formal church attendance. Even with that caveat, I'm slightly uncomfortable with the notion that not actively participating in the local church is ever acceptable from a Scriptural standpoint.

In the same passage, he discusses challenging someone he was counseling to stop reading her Bible for a few weeks because she was doing it out of mere duty. While I see where he was coming from, this, too, is worrisome to me. There are ways in which to cut off legalistic views of church and Bible reading without abandoning them: the issue is not a matter of how often we do things but of what our heart attitude is in doing them, and while I don't doubt that God can in the manner Eldredge suggested, the weight of Scripture would seem to indicate that it is more actively engaging with His word and with His people that we are drawn out of those fallen heart attitudes, not less.

Those being the only demerits, and taking up a relatively small section of the book (just a few pages), I am far more comfortable with this book than any others I've read of his. Indeed, given the significant good things about the book, I can recommend it with the caveat that it should be read with those few demerits in mind. There is a lot to be learned here, and this is a good place to start in exploring the issue of desire as God intended it to be. (Just don't let it be the place your exploration stops!)

- Chris

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Captivating review

At long last, I'm back on track for reviewing books. (It's been five months... gah!) The last few months have been incredibly busy, and we had a snag with the books getting to me. Today's review is of John and Stasi Eldgredge's book Captivating: Unveiling the Mystery of a Woman's Soul. Published in 2005, the book has become a continual bestseller in Christian nonfiction, and at the same time a subject of some controversy - especially as John Eldredge has been accused of ascribing to open theism. I'll largely be avoiding the issue here, since it's mostly irrelevant to the book itself. The book is the authors' attempt to speak to issues women face from sin in general and Western culture in particular. They open the book by proposing to "venture into this exploration of femininity by way of the heart" - specifically by posing the questions:
What is at the core of a woman's heart? What are her desires? What did we long for as little girls? What do we still long for as women? And, how does a woman begin to be healed from the wounds and tragedies of her life?" (p. x)

The remainder of the text is an exploration of the Eldredges' proposed answers to those questions.

The text consists of a brief introduction followed by just over 200 pages of text broken into twelve chapters. Each chapter consists of multiple sections, working through a thesis introduced at the beginning of the chapter or responding to a question brought up by the previous chapter. Each chapter is opened by a quote or three providing insight into the content and thoughts of the chapter. (The most memorable was their quoting C. S. Lewis as having said, "Even to see her walk across the room is a liberal education.") The content consists largely of alternating blocks of thesis and illustrative narrative, either from their own experiences (largely Stasi's, as one would expect) or from their interactions with others. The Eldredges answer the questions they posed by laying a foundation in the first chapter and then developing the ideas of that chapter through the text, primarily focusing on "what makes a woman come alive" by addressing her desire "to be romanced, to play an irreplaceable role in a great adventure, and to unveil beauty" (p. 8).

The authors carry the book as a running conversation with the reader, anticipating feedback and responding to it as they move along. As such, the language is light and conversational, the sentences easy to parse. The chapters are short and relatively easy to digest. The perspective of the anecdotes is indicated (in most cases; see below) by a parenthetical indicating who is doing the telling. Scripture is mixed in liberally throughout the text, to a demonstrative rather than expositional effect. Each chapter neatly ties up its own questions and thoughts, while introducing a particularly incisive statement of the thesis developed throughout and transitioning toward the next chapter. As a whole, the text built to a conclusive finale that left the reader fully satisfied, at least from a literary perspective.

The book has a number of outstanding merits. It is well-constructed, and has excellent flow from idea to idea. The ideas presented are excellent, and mostly in accord with Scripture. They Eldredges are in fine form as they recount story after story both of immense pain caused by the destruction of the imago Dei - the image of God - in the Fall and immediately follow with stories of healing and hope. Their succinct and accurate demonstration of the ways in which women grapple with their role in this world - with their very selves - is excellent indeed. They paint with a broad brush, of course, but a largely accurate one, as they note the ways in which women have been trampled upon and broken by both the world at large and their own selves. Women are beautiful (and in more than merely their appearance) in ways that are a marvel to me. They see the world in ways I cannot.

They dealt responsibly with wounds delivered to women by both men and women, refusing to slip into a neo-feminist "blame men" mentality. In what I think was probably the best chapter in the book, they dealt with the power a mother has with her daughter, and with the remarkable "sister" relationship that women have with each other. Throughout the book, the Eldredges emphasized the healing power of Christ and His desire to make women whole: to make them as they were intended to be by stripping away all the false layers that have built up as futile defenses against the world, to make them beautiful in Him. This consistent return to Christ was a breath of fresh air in a culture dedicated to self-therapy and self-healing.

One significant weakness included a number of niggling editorial failures: the explanation of what, precisely, Alter is - it's a translation of Genesis by Robert Alter, a Hebrew scholar - until five pages after introducing it, or failure to tie up various stories opened for illustration in the text. At one point the authors claimed that "saints from ages past" said something and then immediately and without transition quoted John Eldredge's book Wild at Heart (p. 35). Throughout the text, transitions between authors were sometimes unclear (specifically, the indeterminate use of "I" in a multi-author text as opposed to the more standard "we") when, as occasionally happened, they forgot to parenthetically note who was speaking. Existing transitions between voices are often choppy. These sorts of mistakes simply frustrate or mislead the reader in small but unfortunate and thoroughly unnecessary ways: this is what a good editor is for!

More significant were the assertions that were at best left undemonstrated by Scripture and at worst wholly unsupported by it - even, perhaps, contrary to it, however well-meaning. In the former case we have their recounting of the Fall - but without a single use of the word "sin" and only the pithy, "When a man goes bad, as every man has in some way gone bad after the Fall..." (p. 50) to even address the issue of depravity and our need for Christ. They continue by noting of man their belief that "what is mostly deeply marred [by the Fall] is his Strength" (p. 50), and of woman that it is "her tender vulnerability, beauty that invites to life." Insofar as these are a part of the image of God planted in us, they are somewhat right, but they miss the fact that it is actually that imago Dei that is marred, and our relationship with God. Strength and Beauty (if they are indeed men and women's primary God-reflecting attributes, another unproven assertion) are but the parts of the image of God, and that is the fundamental loss that makes this lesser loss that the Eldredges do mourn so grievous: a point which they could (and should!) have made.

Later, they tell story of a woman who abandoned her active ministry to her church and to unbelievers to "minister to God" (p. 208) - what this looks like is unspecified, except that it meant her abandoning every active role in the community of believers. As such, it's hard to know exactly what is meant by this, but the Eldredges do comment that this woman was chastised by her church for abandoning the Great Commission. If indeed she has ceased to share the Gospel in lieu of "ministering to God" I find myself with several questions. First, what exactly does that mean? Second, how is obeying God's commands - indeed, Christ's final command to His disciples while on earth - not ministering to God? Finally, how can we possibly fulfill both the greatest commandment and the one like it - loving God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength; and loving our neighbor as ourselves - if we are not actively engaged in the proclamation of the gospel? Though the reader was expected to sympathize with the woman referenced, I found myself sympathizing more with the church leaders who seemed to be dealing responsibly with her error. This example was murky enough - and prominent enough - to address, but a number of similar examples cropped up throughout the book.

Somewhere farther along that continuum is their assertion that "Beauty is, without question, the most essential and most misunderstood of God's qualities" (p. 40, emphasis in the original). They failed to provide any Scriptural evidence for this assertion, and it left me somewhat mystified: God's dominant attributes as portrayed by Scripture are probably His glory, His holiness, and His relational nature. Beauty is a component of those, but it certainly does not dominate them; as such I find it difficult to swallow the assertion that beauty is unquestionably the most essential of God's attributes. (For clarity, searching Scriptures for passages on the beauty of the Lord or the beauty of God [including all wildcards] turned up a grand total of two passages. Searching for passages about "the glory of the Lord" [excluding all variants on the phrase] finds at least forty. This is no insignificant assertion.) I am willing to grant that the Eldredges perhaps meant this in a way that can be reconciled with the teaching of Scripture, but there is clearly an issue here.

Worse than this, however, was their seventh chapter (and a theme throughout the text), "Romanced." The entire proposition of the chapter is that God in Christ is wooing women to Himself as His Bride - each individual woman. This is a fundamentally wrong assertion: no single individual is the Bride of Christ. It's also an incredibly common assertion in Christian circles these days - I don't know how many times I've heard variations on "Jesus is my boyfriend" or "I don't need a husband; I have Christ." I can appreciate the sentiment behind these sorts of statements, and behind the Eldredges' chapter, but the truth is that these are wrong. They are not merely misapplications: they are a fundamental misunderstanding of Scripture - a uniquely Western one, with our preoccupation with individualism. Every single passage of Scripture cited by the Eldredges in this chapter was either addressed corporately to God's people or from one individual man to an individual woman (as in the Song of Solomon references); none of them are from God to an individual. (This is simply because at no point in Scripture is an individual ever called the Bride of Christ: only the Church is.) They conclude the chapter with an address to the reader: "You are his Betrothed, his Beloved, the beat of his heart, and the love of his life" (p. 126); and they conclude on the second to last page of the book, "You are sought after, pursued, romanced by the passionate desire of your Fiancé, Jesus" (p. 217). But this is simply not what Scripture teaches. The Church is his Bride. More importantly, His deepest intimacy is not with the Church, incredibly though that intimacy is, but with Himself: within the Trinity. This is dangerously wrong: for it sets the individual in a non-communal context in her relationship with Christ and it places us higher than God the Father and the Spirit in Christ's eyes.

It is my sincere hope that these were simply misstatements on the part of the authors, or a lack of clear communication of their ideas from their minds to the page - but regardless of their intent, this kind of thinking is leading many astray, to our great loss. We need an understanding of these texts that is not pinned on proof-texting and a theology centered on our own individual selves. We need an understanding of these texts that points to the Church and to God, not to individuals.

Ultimately, I have to call this book a very mixed bag. Much good is to be found here, and to be clear, the Eldredges were not setting out to write a text of deep exposition of Scripture's teaching on femininity, but rather to examine a picture of what femininity should look like and how to get there. I found much of value here: glimpses of women as the most beautiful part of God's creation, as tender-hearted reflections of His love, of equals who stand alongside men and complement their strength with relationship. But when all of this is mixed with the serious kinds of error addressed above, it is a dangerous combination: for without discernment, we may swallow all the bad with the good. The friendliness of the book and the ease with which it may be read have contributed to its popularity, no doubt - but I fear that it has also been the individualism and the unfaithful treatments of Scripture: treatments of the sort that Satan loves to twist to his advantage even where it was simple error on the part of the authors. I cannot recommend this book to any but discerning readers, and to them I might suggest other books with a better Scriptural hermeneutic (as I will when I come across them).

- Chris

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

3 Seconds: The Power of Thinking Twice review

I (finally!) finished another book I've been meaning to read and review for a while, Dr. Les Parrott's 3 Seconds: The Power of Thinking Twice. The book was published by Zondervan earlier this year, and is one of many books by the author dealing with the basic topic of succeeding in life. The book is relatively short, at 193 pages (I'm not including the promotions for other Les Parrott books at the end), though not so short at the last book I reviewed. Parrott is a widely published (and widely read) doctor of psychology who founded the Center for Relational Development on at Seattle Pacific University. This particular book examines how one can live a more meaningful and impactful life by choosing not to immediately respond to one's first impulse and to embrace six patterns Parrott believes characterize successful people.

The book's length is broken down into a brief foreword by John C. Maxwell, an introduction in which Parrott lays out his thesis, six chapters corresponding to his six important impulses, and a conclusion summarizing his arguments. Parrott's thesis in essence is that taking three seconds to pause and re-examine one's decision: rejecting a primary impulse and embracing a secondary, less natural but more effective, impulse. The chapters cover the following negative and positive impulses:

  1. Empower Yourself: "There's nothing I can do about it," vs. "I can't do everything, but I can do something."

  2. Embrace a Good Challenge: "It's too difficult to even attempt," vs. "I love a challenge."

  3. Fuel Your Passion: "I'll do what happens to come my way," vs. "I'll do what I'm designed to do."

  4. Own Your Piece of the Pie: "It's not my problem, somebody else is to blame," vs. "The buck stops here."

  5. Walk the Extra Mile: "I've done what's required, and that's that," vs. "I'll go above and beyond the mere minimum."

  6. Quit Stewing and Start Doing: "Someday I'm going to do that," vs. "I'm diving in ... starting today."

In each chapter, Parrott dissects the initial impulse, analyzing its appeal and how and why it leads to failure, then follows up with his own second impulse and provides both statistical and anecdotal support for his solution to the problem. Woven throughout each chapter are not only motivational stories but referenes to Scripture (typically without direct, in-text citation, but typically also direct quotes).

Parrott's style is that of the counselor; his background as a psychologist comes through clearly. He deals primarily in the realm of human issues and speaks clearlywhen it comes to our mind's patterns. His writing is clear and simple. He doesn't have a distinctive voice, instead opting for a largely neutral tone that is informative and concise. While this doesn't lend itself to a particularly memorable style, it also keeps any idiosyncrasies from becoming overwhelming or annoying. Each section clearly states the thesis, expounds on it, and then neatly summarizes the ideas presented, along with several anecdotes for each chapter. Parrott doesn't spend a great deal of time dealing with things from a Scriptural perspective, focusing instead on the issues at hand from a psychological perspective (more on this below).

The merits of the book are its clear and concise writing, its skillful use of anecdotes, and its accuracy. As I noted in the stylistic analysis, Parrott's writing isn't particularly stylish, but it is simple and as such has a certain elegance. It's not cluttered, and this works to his advantage: the book gives you the information you want in a way that is easy to read, easy to understand, and easy to remember. The anecdotes presented bring the concepts to life in a way that help ensure that they do not remain mere abstractions. One interesting point in the book's favor, interestingly, is that the book is really not explicitly "Christian." Parrott is a psychologist, and a good one - but he is no theologian, and he makes no claim to be. He cites Christ at several points to build his case, quoting directly from Scripture, but the book is of the sort that it could easily be read by a non-Christian who would still come away having learned something. Perhaps more importantly, the book could easily be read by a non-Christian without feeling like Parrott was beating him or her over the head with the Bible in an attempt to Christianify, if you will, notions that are simply not terribly theological (though of course theology has implications for them). This might strike you as odd, but I see it as a huge advantage to the book: it is general enough to appeal to a broad audience, but has sufficient scriptural hooks to perhaps interest the non-Christian in taking a deeper look at Scripture.

The demerits, interestingly, parallel the merits: they are in the writing style, and the use of anecdotes. The downside to Parrott's lack of a distinctive voice is that the book, while informative and useful, is not terribly memorable. I didn't remember the principles presented without explicit review when I sat down to write this selection only four days after finishing the book. The book's emphasis on pure psychology absent much Scripture, while advantageous as noted above, could prove a turn-off to many Christians (though this is a less a demerit of the book than of the Christian publishing bubble, in my mind). On a related note, explicit referencing, even in footnotes, of the relevant passages would have been a huge boon to the book insofar as it does reference scripture.

I applaud Parrott for having written a credible and useful piece of non-fiction that is simply a good piece of work: that is, for being a good psychologist whose view is informed by his relationship with Christ, not a good Christian psychologist whose work is made irrelevant to the non-Christian by his lack of quality work. Too often I've seen authors who know their Christian audience will buy their book because it's by a Christian, instead of turning out quality work informed by their faith. While I can't say that the book should be mandatory reading, per se, I do think it's worth picking up if you have time. I know the Holy Spirit used it to bring me conviction in some of the areas Parrott addresses, and in so doing motivated me to pursue Him and His will in my life to a greater degree. If you've got some leeway in your schedule (or perhaps more importantly if you don't), you should consider this as one possible read.

- Chris

Sunday, October 21, 2007

3:16 - The Numbers of Hope Review

I just finished Max Lucado's most recent book, 3:16 - The Numbers of Hope. The book was launched, auspiciously, on September 11 as a hopeful note to counter the five-year commemoration of the /11 attack, in what Zondervan deemed one of its boldest publishing moves. I agree, though perhaps not for the reasons they intended. The book is a short text followed by a forty-day devotional. Lucado created the book as an exposition on what is perhaps the single most-quoted and well-known text of the New Testament, John 3:16: "For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life." The text is a remarkable one, to be sure, and Lucado spends each chapter discussing either some aspect of the passage or ideas suggested by it.

The text itself is short, around 160-175 pages of general text followed by about 60 pages of devotional material. Each chapter is quick reading in and of itself, almost devotional length at my quick reading speed, but probably about 35-45 minutes reading for the average reader. The book itself took me only about an hour and half to two hours to read start to finish. Lucado essentially steps through the text of the verse in question, inserting several chapters that diverge from the text itself but follow related concepts and ideas. He also brings in a considerable number of anecdotes from present-day life to contemplate his meditations on Nicodemus' questions and Christ's answers.

The text reads much like what I imagine Lucado's sermons sound like: conversational, low-key, and very down to earth. This isn't high-brow theology; it isn't even low-brow theology: it's basic exposition, which is often an area neglected by preachers who either run towards deep theology or, on the other end of the spectrum, simply jump off into helpful advice with little reference to Scripture. His style is more that of a speaker than a writer; his words are quick-flowing and conversational. He integrates exposition on Scripture with his own stories, typically using the former as introduction to and conclusion to the chapters and the latter as filler. The devotionals are quick and snappy, filled with short thoughts that, while not directly related to the text, are also expository on the text and intended to inspire reaction to the power of the words of John 3:16.

The merits of the book are its focus on the incomparable grace of God and His work in our lives. Lucado draws our attention to the power of the words of John 3:16, which have been heard so many times that they have perhaps become something of a cliche in Christian circles, to the point where we miss their meaning. His meditations on the passage are always Scriptural, which is a pleasant change from some other books I've read recently which bordered on (or outright crossed into) heresy. This was particularly valuable when he spoke about Hell, pulling no punches about Scripture's clear demarcation of the line between salvation and condemnation. Most of the stories he offers as helpful commentary are fairly fresh and engaging. There were few to no grammatical or spelling errors in this book (a pet peeve of mine).

Unfortunately, the demerits of the book outweigh its merits. While Lucado's intent was apparently to take a fresh look at John 3:16 and invoke a new sense of wonder at the text - something well worth doing - I don't believe he succeeded. Indeed, I wonder if this book won't simply reinforce the very stereotypical and trite views of many Christians. Why? Because Lucado offers no profound insights here: he simply hashes through the verse, and instead of taking the time to dive into Scripture's riches, he relies on his own anecdotes. Anecdotes are great, but they are not living and active and powerful, nor do the pierce even to divide between the thoughts and the intentions of the heart. He rarely if ever references Scripture outside of John 3:16 itself, and this is usually set-up for his thoughts on the matter, rather than for looking at God's grace displayed throughout history as recorded by Scripture. Moreover, the time he spends on expository teaching is minimal, as compared to the feel-good anecdotes that, while nice, unfortunately take up most of the space in the book with what is ultimately neither convicting nor inspiring by and large. They may not be hackneyed cliches, but they are also not soul-piercing metaphors for our existence. The book is too short, and the unrelated nature of the devotionals to the rest of the text makes their addition seem an attempt to fill out the short text length. Lucado's lack of skill as a writer also comes through, for better or for worse. While nothing he writes is terribly egregious, and he doesn't make any terrible mistakes, his writing was incredibly bland - to the point where I had to force myself to keep going at points.

The book, to be perfectly honest, disappointed me. While Lucado came highly recommended, the book was not at a level that I find even slightly useful. I cannot recommend it, even to young believers for whom the content would possibly be informative. Read something better written and with more depth - and especially with a stronger call to pursue the glory of God.

Monday, September 3, 2007

The Case for the Real Jesus Review

Late last week I finished reading an advance copy of Lee Strobel's forthcoming book, The Case for the Real Jesus. With this latest book, former atheist and journalist Lee Strobel has turned his attention to some of the various attacks that have been mounted on the Biblical picture of Christ in recent years, particularly the questions stirred up by Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code and the recent discovery of the Gospel of Judas (along with this year's incredible [in the early sense of the word: not credible] announcement by James Cameron of the discovery of the ossuary of Christ - a discovery deemed not credible over a decade ago by all serious scholars). The book will be published by Zondervan on September 10th in hardback.

The text is 311 pages long, and is broken down into sections (essentially large chapters, save for a couple sections large enough to warrant being broken into multiple chapters). Each section covers a particular challenge to the claims of Christian orthodoxy that has arisen (or has changed significantly) in the past few years. Strobel opens with a short introduction, then moves into the body of the text, examining in turn the following challenges:
  • "Scholars are uncovering a radically different Jesus in ancient documents just as credible as the four gospels."
  • "The Bible's portrait of Jesus can't be trusted because the church tampered with the text."
  • "New explanations have refuted Jesus' resurrection."
  • "Christianity's beliefs about Jesus were copied from pagan religions."
  • "Jesus was an imposter who failed to fulfill the Messianic prophecies."
  • "People should be free to pick and choose what to believe about Jesus."

Each of these points is dealt with in an investigative fashion: Strobel sits down and interviews a widely respected Christian Ph.D. (in each case, people who have earned the recognition of their opponents as well as their supporters) on the topic at hand. Following these sections is a summary-oriented conclusion, several appendices, and an index.

Strobel's style is clear and compelling. He writes like the award-winning Chicago Tribune journalist he once was - and thus weaves together the interviews as compelling narratives. Scattered throughout the dialogues are his own personal thoughts and contemplations. Along the way, he describes the dominating attributes - scholastic and personal - of each of the men he interviews. At the conclusion of each section, he neatly sums up the most important points made by each author, clarifying any hazy issues and tying up any loose ends from the earlier stages of the chapter/interview. His voice is clear and compelling, making for an easy read. (Despite being in the midst of classes and considerable work, I finished the entire book in less than four days.) Honestly, I had a difficult time putting the text down when it was time to go back to doing homework.

The Christian apologist makes no bones about the fact that he is a Christian, nor about the fact that he is ultimately arguing for the Christian view on the subject. At the same time, he does his best to fairly treat the criticisms raised by those who have attacked Christian claims in recent years. Furthermore, he notes that he is concerned as to whether the claims of Christianity hold up against new critical attacks made against them, as it is important for his own faith. As Paul wrote, and Strobel seconds, Christians are to be pitied above all men if Christ did not actually rise from the dead.

The merits of the book are in its clear style and high information content. Strobel delivers an incredible amount of information in a very short span of time, and yet manages not to overwhelm the reader. He accomplishes this by spreading the information out and coherently weaving it together. The interview format contributes to this, but Strobel's own voice and skill with the text are what bind the information together into an engaging narrative, rather than a simple (and dry) presentation of facts. His willingness to press the interviewees on difficult issues is also a significant merit to the text. Though of course he is not looking to disprove his thesis - that is, that Christianity does stand up to the claims made against it - he also is not interested in a padded case for Christianity that will not hold up intellectually. (Of course, many people opposed to Christian apologetics reject Strobel's arguments prima facie on the notion that he's biased, but their argument is flawed, since they themselves are likewise biased, though in the opposite direction. This does not diminish the value of Strobel's contribution; nor does it damage the excellent scholarship Strobel is tapping into.)

I can think of no significant demerits to this book.

My recommendation for this book can be summed up as follows: "Go buy it as soon as it comes out." This sort of apologetic information is essential for any Christian interested in being able to defend their faith against the textual and philosophical criticisms currently being leveled against it. Strobel makes a clear case, loaded with information, in a memorable way that will be useful to believers of all backgrounds. Even for someone familiar with these arguments, this will be an extremely useful refresher.

May you walk in peace and the grace of God tonight!

- Chris

Friday, August 10, 2007

The Grand Weaver Review

I just finished The Grand Weaver, Ravi Zacharias' newest book. Subtitled, "How God Shapes Us Through the Events of Our Lives," the book is a theological and philosophical examination of precisely that topic: the ways in which God uses the happenings of our lives to conform us to His image, to make us holy as He is holy. Published by Zondervan in July, the book is Zacharias' answer to the question posed on the back cover: "Are the threads of our lives accidentally tangled or intentionally arranged?"

The book consists of an introduction, eight chapters each approximately twenty pages long, and a brief epilogue summing up the thoughts Zacharias has just walked through. He begins with a few stories illustrating both the need for an answer to the questions we all struggle with - of meaning and purpose for the seemingly random events of our lives - and with a Scriptural basis for his answer to these questions. He then moves through the remainder of the book slowly expanding on this theme both from Scripture and from various experiences (both his own and others'). His message can be summed up with the notion that your life experiences matter; indeed, each chapter is titled in precisely that way: "Your DNA Matters," "Your Morality Matters," and so on. God's actions in our lives are not purposeless, nor are any events in our lives. Each has meaning and fits as part of the pattern being woven by the Grand Weaver referenced by the title: the merciful, loving, and ultimately sovereign God of Christianity who ensures that "all things work together for the good of those who love [Him], to those who are called according to His purpose" (Romans 8:28).

Zacharias approaches the book much he would an address to a crowd. Despite its deep theological and philosophical underpinnings, the text is easy to read and extremely well written (as I have come to expect from anything written by him). Despite addressing complex topics with great acuity, Zacharias never strays into language that is overly complex, though he is not afraid to use a higher vocabulary than is common in most of today's texts. He writes succinctly but forcefully, much as he speaks. The text reads like a series of well-constructed sermons, moving from the basis of his argument through the outworkings of that argument in various aspects of our lives. Various examples are scattered throughout, and he skillfully uses the same example multiple times to elucidate various aspects of the same point. His style is significantly more mature than Bill Hybels, whose book I recently reviewed, though not necessarily more formal. He simply speaks with great eloquence but in a manner that excises some of the verbiage normally associated therewith, leaving the text with a great deal of force and cogency.

The merits of the book are its clear address of both the theological question of God's sovereign hand in every aspect of our lives and the practical consequences of that answer; and Zacharias' effective writing. Because he clearly addresses the theological question 9and its philosophical implications) early on and gently reminds the reader of them throughout the text, as well as slowly building on that early foundation, Zacharias brings an important theological point into focus - but he does so in a way that makes it easy for any reader to understand. Moreover, he brings home the reality of that point by demonstrating both in theory and practice (by means of examples of actual circumstances) how our response to God's hand working our lives should look. Without the theological foundation, the practical demonstration would lack any reason for application; and without the corresponding practicalities the abstractions of the theology would lack their potentially life-altering impact. Zacharias' writing, as discussed above, is immensely powerful and deeply communicative.

There are two demerits to the book. First is that Zacharias fails to elaborate on some of the examples to a fulfilling extent, leaving the reader dangling somewhat and hungry for more details. This is probably a necessary compromise for a book of this length, which brings me to the second demerit: the brevity of the text. This is very much more a gray area. I would have enjoyed it greatly had he taken the time to further elaborate on the notions he introduced theologically and to further fill out the stories he was sharing. However, at some level this is a merit of the book as well: someone less inclined towards reading or towards deeper theological treatments of subjects such as this than myself will be far more likely to pick up and read this book through than he or she would have had the book been a lengthier and weightier tome. While I believe Zacharias had much more to say on the subject that would have been of value, it might not have gotten heard by so broad an audience as this book may had it been any longer.

I highly recommend the book as generally good reading. I particularly recommend it for younger believers, for whom much of the information might be newer and the various explanations encouraging. As a relatively short, extremely clear, and well-written text, the book lends itself well for reading together in a small group setting or as friends on a road trip.

God bless you all and keep you in His perfect peace.

- Chris

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Holy Discontent review

Last weekend I finished reading Bill Hybels' Holy Discontent: Fueling the Fire That Ignites Personal Vision, published this year by Zondervan. Hybels is a fairly well known Christian author, but he is better known as the founding pastor of Willow Creek Community Church in Chicago. The back cover asks, "What is the one aspect of this broken world that, when you see it, touch it, or get near it, you just can't stand? What reality is so troubling that it thrusts you off the couch and into action? This is what Bill Hybels refers to as a holy discontent..."

The book is relatively short, coming in at 149 pages. It is broken into three distinct sections focused respectively on finding one's holy discontent, developing it, and keeping it alive. Hybels begins by introducing the notion of a holy discontent, framing it in the context of his own life and the lives of various others through history, and even bringing in a repeating reference to Popeye the Sailor Man. Each section is broken down further into 3 chapters (the last chapter in the last section being a postscript). Each chapter draws on multiple examples, and most chapters open with tangible examples designed to draw the reader into the rest of the example - be they personal stories, others' testimonies, or simply compelling statistics.

What is it, he asks, that makes you say "Enough"? That, he says, is a holy discontent: a frustration with this world and its brokenness that moves us to action, to engagement. It is holy because it is a discontent spurred on by our vision of God's character and by His heart for this broken world. From there, he elaborates on the history of his notion of holy discontent, and demonstrates how it worked out in various people's lives. After that introduction, he asks the reader to consider what his or her own personal holy discontents are - and if he or she does not know, he gives some concrete ways to look for it. In the second section, he discusses how one can both actively take that discontent and fan it into flame, and how to practically go about doing something with that discontent. In the final section, he deals with the reality of our fallen natures: that we can grow discouraged in the ongoing battle, and presents suggestions of how to deal with that and press on - to keep fighting the good fight.

His style is fairly conversational, and it is clear that he is used to teaching both from the pulpit and in personal conversations. The book is simply written and easy to read, but not in any sense "dumbed down." It is clearly meant to be a quick read for most people, which is good, given his stated purpose of awakening people to action. His manner is engaging, and his examples, while occasionally somewhat silly (his frequent Popeye references, for example) are typically engaging and compelling. Most of his material is drawn from a combination of Scripture, his own experiences, and the experiences of everyday people who have changed the world in sometimes small but always significant ways because of passions that God laid on their hearts and their willingness to follow those passions and obey God's call to do something with them instead of just sitting. His voice is simple but well-organized; he never drifted off topic or got sidetracked by secondary discussions (again, his experience as a teaching pastor reaching out to the unchurched shows through).

The merits of the book are in its cogency, its sense of urgency, and its ease of read and simplicity. The narratives are all coherent, and the book flows neatly from one section into another. The answers Hybels gives are never pat, but drawn from reality and compelling because he acknowledges the difficulty of what he calls people to do. The encouragement of real examples is tangible and effective. Hybels' voice of urgency is a great strength to the book, as well: he clearly and effectively communicates that there are a great many needs, and you are responsible to reach out and make a difference, to exercise your God-given gifts to change this world. At the same time, he avoids sounding shrill or hyperbolic, either of which would have made the book farcical or ridiculous to most readers. The straightforward manner in which he wrote - and the accompanying ease of reading - are a great asset to a book like this, as is the book's brevity. Had he missed either point, he likely would have missed his target audience: those very people in the church who are most in need of a book like this, but unlikely to pick up a lengthy tome speaking in high, theological terms of the need to change the world. At some level, while I occasionally found them annoying, the Popeye moments scattered throughout the text are probably among its greatest strengths, simply because they keep the reading at an accessible level. There were no significant typos or textual errors, something I found extremely refreshing.

I'm going to have a hard time discussing demerits; the book had none that I can think of. It set out to accomplish a particular goal - communicating the need for all Christians to exercise their gifts, talents, and abilities for the good of those around them, and to not be content in their own spheres.

While I did not find the book particularly challenging, that was more a response to the fact that Hybels was hitting on an area in which I've already developed significant convictions: this text was confirmation rather than conviction in my case. For many, that will not be so, and this book will be well worth their time to read. (My other difficulty with the book was my initial impression of it, formed before I had looked at the summary, was that it was about a discontent that pushed us toward holiness, rather than about holy discontent with the state of the world. I had to push through that misconception to fully appreciate the book, but as I did so I found Hybels' work excellent on all levels. Someone else still needs to write the book I thought this was!) I highly recommend this book to anyone who doesn't already have strong convictions about the ways they can change the world; and I recommend it as a good reminder to those who do.

God bless you all, and may your heart abound with grace, peace, and joy from our Father who gives every good and perfect gift, who fills us with everything necessary for life and for godliness.

- Chris

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

When God Writes Your Love Story Review

Last weekend, I finally followed the advice of several friends and picked up When God Writes Your Love Story by Eric and Leslie Ludy. The book is one of several extremely well-selling books on the topic of dating that has appeared since Joshua Harris sparked an ongoing discussion about Christians and dating with the publication of I Kissed Dating Goodbye over a decade ago. Unlike many of the other books in the genre, though, this one does not aim to either directly contradict or reinforce the message that Harris presented (see, for example, my earlier review of Cloud and Townsend's Boundaries in Dating). Rather, the Ludys simply set out to provide, from their own history, a picture of how a God-centered view of relationships changes the very nature of those self-same relationships.

The book is essentially an historical narrative told variously by Eric and Leslie Ludy (each one contributing different chapters); the contents of each chapter being those useful for making the particular point that the Ludys are attempting to communicate at a given instance. We follow the Ludys from their teens through their early twenties, including some glimpses of their courtship, as well as pictures of previous relationships and the general church culture in which they were surrounded.

Their history is probably fairly typical for many Christian young adults today: they both grew up in a church that taught them "Don't have sex," and little more: no justification beyond "It's bad" and no explanation of the notion that chastity extends far beyond technical virginity. Both compromised significantly in their relationships during their teens - Leslie looking for commitment and sacrificing herself physically in vain attempts to gain it; and Eric as part of a desire to fit in with the other guys in his group of friends (notably, a group that includes Christians). Along the way, both encountered the truth of Christ in a way that forced them to reevaluate their life patterns - to examine their choices in the light of a God-centric, rather than self-centric, existence. Eric dedicated himself to waiting to date until God made clear that the woman in question was the one he was to marry. Leslie committed to wait for a man who would pursue her in a Godly way, setting Jesus Christ as the foundation of the relationship. Both decided to let God be the center of their lives - including their love lives - and then to bear the consequences of that decision.

The authors adopted a simple conversational style for the book, as has been common in books of this genre since Joshua Harris relaunched this conversation over 10 years. They address the reader with honesty and a candid tone that is simultaneously invitational and instructional, without ever crossing into lecturing. Half the chapters are written by Eric, half by Leslie; but their voices are similar enough that remembering which person is telling the story (or giving the challenge) requires glancing at the header for each chapter, where the narrator is specified, and paying attention to contextual clues throughout the chapter. I never got confused in the transitions, which speaks well of both their writing and the invisible editor's hand; getting lost in this sort of back and forth (especially when the changes are relatively random, as here) is easy enough to do. Each chapter includes both personal historical narrative and directed challenges to the reader; and each chapter closes with a set of questions for further thought and practice of the principles the Ludy in question had laid out.

The book has considerable merit: unlike many entries in the genre, the focus is not on rules or principles for improving one's relationships with the opposite sex, but rather on a complete change of heart and attitude with regard to not only relationships but life in general. The Ludys took the entry point of romantic relationship and used it as a springboard to discuss the notion of wholehearted pursuit of Christ - living a life that is truly centered on Him. Their central argument is that it is a Christ-centric and surrendered life that is truly worth living, in every aspect of our lives, including romance. They note that God's plans for us are far better than our own, and thus that He deserves our trust in this (as in all other) areas. This was a refreshing change from most of the books on the subject, which tend to focus significantly more on us than on Christ (to my knowledge, the only real exceptions here being Harris' books). Their picture of purity as being a matter of chastity rather than virginity was also pleasant - and unfortunately also rare. Their telling of their early history and the ways that God changed their perspectives, brought healing to their hearts, and prepared them for their future marriage is excellent, and the exhortation to follow their lead was encouraging - particularly to others brought up in the same church culture that they were (which is a significantly higher percentage than it ought to be).

The book has, in my opinion, two significant demerits. One of these actually stems from the merit listed above: in choosing to focus so intensely on the general question of surrender to Christ's pattern for our lives, the Ludys actually spent very little time discussing what God's writing of one's love story actually looks. This is not intrinsically a bad thing; however, in the context of a book proposing to do precisely that, the fact that they spent so little time on it was more than slightly disappointing. Their purposes would have been better served by either finding a better balance between the themes of general surrender and Christ-centric romance, or by writing a book that wasn't supposed to be about romance but about general surrender. The second demerit flows out of this, as well as out of their basic stylistic choices. By centering the lessons they tried to teach on their own lives, the Ludys created an expectation of seeing how their love story played out - what it actually looked like in practice once God was writing their love story. However, there was almost none of this: indeed, what is present is almost entirely incidental. The Ludys, though they did a good job of laying the foundation for why one should have a romance (and life) surrendered wholly to God, simply did not fulfill their unspoken but essential promise to then demonstrate it. I've no doubt they can do so, because the hints that we do get of their relationship sound wonderful and exciting. Yet by not expanding on that part of the story - in many ways, the most important for demonstrating the veracity of their claims - the Ludys simply leave the reader hanging. From a literary sense, the book never reaches a climax at any level - not in terms of its narrative, nor in terms of its lessons; it simply continues until it ends.

I think the book is good on many levels. Certainly I recommend reading it, especially for those who have come from a past with damaging relationships and broken hearts. While I still think that Joshua Harris' books Boy Meets Girl and Sex Is Not The Problem [Lust Is] (formerly Not Even A Hint) are the best books on dating/courtship and lust respectively, I rank this one as being best after those that I've read thus far. I very much appreciate their Christ-centric focus.

In Him,

Saturday, January 6, 2007

Review: no compromise

I just finished reading no compromise: The Life Story of KEITH GREEN, by Melody Green and David Hazard. As is obvious from the title, the book is a biography of Christian recording artist (and, many have said, prophet) Keith Green, whose years of ministry lasted from 1978 - the year he was saved - to his death in 1982. In that short time, he helped reshape the entire (young) world of Christian music and influenced thousands (perhaps millions) of Christians across America - and through them, across the world - to dedicate themselves to pursuing God at a deeper level. The book chronicles his life from his birth through his death, in greater detail in some areas and in less in others where the authors had less knowledge to draw on. Throughout, the picture painted is that of a man with a divine call on his life - a call that ultimately, despite his own flaws and weaknesses, he answered and fulfilled by the power of the Holy Spirit. The title alone describes Keith Green to a "T."

The book is a mostly chronological retelling of Keith Green's life. The early chapters skip backward and forward in a way that give insight on the "current" events being described by the narrator of the text, Keith's wife Melody. The narrative opens before Keith and Melody's conversion to Christianity, in days when they were searching for spiritual truth everywhere, in everything - from drugs to Eastern mysticism... to the teachings of Jesus Christ. The very first anecdote recounted is that of an encounter with a common friend of theirs outside of a cafe where Keith had been playing a gig. The encounter - like most with that friend - turned to discussion of the supernatural. As Keith started discussing how he'd been studying Jesus Christ, the discussion took a turn as the man clearly came under demonic influence, proclaiming he was Jesus Christ, and then being repelled when Keith instinctively snapped back a Scripture refuting the claim. The rest of the book is similarly aware of the interaction of the real spiritual forces of darkness so active in the lives of those given over to the drug-soaked and cult-obsessed ideologies of the late 70's - ideologies which largely remain unrefuted in the public at large even today.

From that one encounter on, Melody traces her and Keith's spiritual journeys, as well as examining Keith's early life as a musical prodigy who almost - but never quite - made it big in the unforgiving recording industry. From drug-loving, "free love" (that is, free sex) hippies of the 70's, Keith and Melody walked a path that took them ever closer to the saving power of Christ. They first came to see Him as a good teacher, a "spiritual master" to be followed in the tradition of following Buddha and others of that sort, then even a divinely inspired messenger from God. For a long time, they struggled with the notion that He was truly God Himself, that all Scripture was actually and completely true. When, after continuing to interact with Christian friends of theirs, they became convinced of Scripture's claims of Christ's divinity, both of them continued to struggle - no longer with their intellects, but now with their wills. Committing to Christ meant absolutely surrendering to Him.

One of the points that became increasingly clear to Melody the longer she and Keith were married, and that becomes clear to the reader the farther along in the book one goes, is that Keith was not a man of compromise. Whatever he believed, he believed with all his heart, and he brooked no deviation from that belief in his own life. He understood, then, that committing to follow Christ was truly a commitment to give up his own will and to live a life of holiness dedicated the glory of God. When he committed his life to Christ, he did precisely that. When he began to realize just how short of God's standard most of his Christian friends were falling, he set out to proclaim that standard. He and Melody opened their house to the needy, eventually taking over several houses in their area to support those walking away from old, broken lives into new ones changed by the power of Christ. Keith finally saw musical success, when at last he was able to surrender his dream of success and give himself wholly to working for the Kingdom of God. His music provoked the nation, and his tours led to changed hearts and awakenings of people's understanding of what it meant to truly follow God - to give their all for Him. I'll leave the rest for you to discover - as well as the details of all I wrote above. It's worth reading for yourself.

The text is easy to read. Melody Green, writing with David Hazard (who is mostly invisible as a co-writer and editor), tells the story mostly from a first person historical perspective, remembering the events as they happened to the two of them. In the cases where she was not present, she uses a third person voice, relying on the first-hand accounts available to her - first from Keith himself, either from conversation with him or from his extensive journals; then from those who knew him and participated in his life at the various junctures she chronicles. The book flows and reads well, as if listening to a story told by a friend. The simple power of their testimony helps, too. And I'm sure that Hazard helped immensely. He's an award-winning writer and editor, and it shows. The book never lags pace-wise, and it maintains interest easily simply by telling Keith's story in an interesting and compelling way. Each chapter is titled by the title of one of his songs - one that fits the material well. It's interesting to see how one's perception of those songs changes after reading how and when they came about. All of them become even more compelling than they already are. The pictures scattered throughout the text provide a nice glimpse into the man at a level beyond what words alone can convey, are well-placed, and generally add to the text.

The pros and cons are difficult to discuss in this book. On the positive side is pretty much the whole text, which is inspiring at a number of levels. It is full of reminders of the surrendered life we're called to live, and also of God's amazing grace to save us and continue to work patiently as we are sanctified after salvation. I cannot think of a single reason not to recommend the book. There really aren't any cons... save perhaps that it seemed too short. I read the entire thing in two or three sittings stretching over perhaps four or five hours total. It'll probably take a bit longer than that for most people (I read sickeningly quickly), but given that's the only con I can think of, I certainly have no reservations recommending it - with the single exception that you won't enjoy it if you don't appreciate being challenged and convicted, because reading about the convictions that Keith and Melody seized and ran with will challenge and provoke you. It did me. And it has a lot of other people along the way as well. It's my hope you are encouraged by that.

Keith Green's unflinching commitment to holiness, to purity, to the standard of perfection to which we as Christians are ultimately called, rubbed a lot of Christians the wrong way in the early 80's, and continues to do so to this day. In our modern and post-modern church culture, the focus is all too often on our salvation - our justification - alone, and in many churches in America, the message of sanctification is never preached. Rather, we want God to give to us, and have no desire to hear of the expectations that He has on our lives. To be sure, we must always remain aware of His grace and His mercy. But grace is not a license to sin; to the contrary, it is a free gift that ought to ever humble us and, if we truly understand it, break our hearts and draw us ever more to pursue holiness. Why? Because our holiness can only come through surrender to the power of the Holy Spirit - and it thus brings glory to God the Father by pointing to the mighty work accomplished by Jesus Christ on the cross and in His resurrection. Sanctification is a vital part of the Christian message, and it has been passed up in a way that seeks to win more souls by not telling people the difficulty of the road before them (nor of the reward inherent in being made more like God!). In so doing, God's grace has been cheapened. Keith Green was a man who saw that cheapening and knew how marvelous God's free gift truly is - and went out to proclaim it to the world. I recommend that all of you read this book, and as soon as possible. You will be convicted, encouraged, and provoked to ponder again the marvelous work that God has done in us.

God bless you all. May you walk in His peace. May His understanding light your way. May His word be the light to your path and the truth to which you cling every moment of every day. May His grace be real to you like never before. Go in the power that dwells in you in the person of the Spirit.

- Chris