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Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category

If you frequent Amazon.com and have a personal account, it is likely that you have clicked the “recommendations” link  to see what you might find.  I do this often.  I’m curious to see what they suggest.  I have a sales history that reaches back to my time at Baylor University, meaning I have given them nearly a decade of data from which they can project my tastes, preferences, likes, and dislikes.  There are often titles from the social sciences, theology, marketing, classical fiction, biblical studies, philosophy, and more theology.  I’m known to peruse hundreds of their suggestions.

And while I know that all of us possess a consumeristic impulse, I resist the temptation to buy.  I did not begin this way, as my wife would readily testify.  But after reading Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline, I gave increased thought to the virtue of simplicity, and took up his suggestion to take advantage of public library systems when they have titles you find interesting.  I now read Amazon.com’s list of recommendations, browse customer reviews, and if a title is really interesting, I search the database of the Johnson County Library.

One of the great advantages of the JOCO Library system is the ability to borrow books across branch locations.  Obtaining a book is as simple as placing a hold request, asking that it be delivered to the DeSoto library, and picking it off the reserve shelf.  The De Soto branch is within walking distance from my house.  I am notified when the book arrives by email, and either walk downtown or pick it up while running errands.  It is a beautiful service.

I write all this because it is this system that brought me William Zinsser‘s On Writing Well, a wonderful guide to the craft of writing.  The book was suggested on Amazon, available through the library system, and peaked my interest because I am continuing to learn the art of writing.  His book has been a wonderful help.

Zinsser’s book is a helpful resource for anyone who writes.  His book begins with some fundamentals, such as how to write with simplicity, reduce clutter, be mindful of the audience, and how to properly use the language.  He has tips on how to structure your writing, how to write for nonfiction audiences, and how to properly execute various forms (interview, sports, memoir, travel, etc.).  Zinsser includes helpful illustrations and examples from his own writing, and, perhaps most importantly, writes in such a way as to inspire others to write with excellence.

I like to pass along good book recommendations from time to time, and this is one.  If you’re a writer, I would recommend picking up this book.

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Recently I read Steve Powers and Neil Postman’s How to Watch TV News.  I’m somewhat of a Neil Postman junkie, so some of the ideas in this book I had encountered in his others works.  This book is a bit unique in that the focus is specifically on television news.  Powers is the media insider, providing insight into the production side of the news industry, while Postman is the philosopher of media. 

Media, technology, and the impact each have on our lives is something I find fascinating, and Powers and Postman provide an interesting argument worth consideration.  Powers and Postman’s objective is to inform the reader of the inner workings of television news so that we can better evaluate what we are seeing when we tune in each day.  The authors then provide guidelines for news watching and challenge their audience to instruct others in how they might watch TV, particularly our children.

Though the book contains a number of interesting points of information, I’d like to pass along only one of their more compelling recommendations: have fewer opinions.  Postman and Powers recommend that the number of opinions we feel obligated to have should be reduced by approximately one third–and yes, this does have to do with our addiction to TV news.  They state:

One of the reasons many people are addicted to watching TV news is that they feel under pressure to have an opinion about almost everything.  Middle-class people, at least those who are college educated, seem especially burdened by the unrealistic and slightly ridiculous obligation to have a ready-made opinion on any matter. For example, suppose you are attending a dinner party and someone asks you if you think the earth is undergoing permanent warming as a result of the increase in carbon dioxide emissions.  You are expected to say something like, “Absolutely.  In fact, I heard a discussion of this on CNN (or MSNBC or Fox News or even Entertainment Tonight) last Thursday, and it looks as if we’re in for devastating climatic changes.  I heard Al Gore got an Oscar for his movie about it.”  The fact is that you really don’t know much about this matter, and TV coverage only provides the most rudimentary and fragmented information about anything.  Wouldn’t it be liberating to be able to say, “I have no opinion on this since I know practically nothing about it”?  Of course, we realize that if you gave such an answer five or six times during the course of a dinner party, you would probably not be asked back.  But that would be a small price to pay for relieving yourself of the strain of storing thirty-two half-baked opinions to be retrieved at a moment’s notice.

Have fewer opinions.  It will be OK.

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This past week I read a small book by Seth Godin called The Dip: A Little Book That Teaches You When to Quit (And When to Stick).  You can check out Godin’s blog here.  Godin is a marketing guru with a number of great, simple ideas that are both challenging and remarkably easy to grasp.  I subscribe to his blog and every once in a while discover something there that is helpful for my professional and personal life.

In this small book Godin defines The Dip as “the long slog between starting and mastery,” and I can think back over the course of my life and recognize those points where I’ve found myself in The Dip.  It’s that point in ministry (or any activity) where carrying out the job becomes incredibly difficult–you don’t know the existing systems well enough, who to contact, where to turn, you’re incredibly exhausted, and wonder if your best will be good enough.  I’ve had these feelings every time I’ve entered a new setting.  In most instances I’ve struggled past the temptation to walk away and found success.  At other times I’ve quit–sometimes this has been a good decision, other times not so much.

In the book Godin explains how The Dip is something you can either lean into and reach new levels of being the best in the world, or it is something that forces you to quit and move on to something else.  Going against common wisdom, however, Godin argues that quitting isn’t always a bad thing.  In fact, those who become the best in the world know when to quit so that they can pursue their passions and reach new levels of excellence.  We all know this to be true.  Anyone who has held a job has quit one position in order to move onto something more satisfying and fulfilling.  If this wasn’t true in my life, I’d still be cutting grass.

If you find yourself in The Dip, is it time to lean?  Or is it time to quit?  It might be the case you need to push on through in order to accomplish your dream.  But it might be the case that you need to strategically quit.  As Godin observes, “If you realize you’re at a dead end compared with what you could be investing in, quitting is not only a reasonable choice, it’s a smart one.”

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Last week I received Kevin M. Watson’s A Blueprint for Disciplineship: Wesley’s General Rules as a Guide for Christian Living by mail.  It is a short, engaging book, and I read it the day it fell into my hands.  I did not actually fall there by as though by a divine accident.  I requested the book, and I’m glad I did.

Watson is currently a Ph.D. student in Church History and Wesley Studies at Southern Methodist University.  He is an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church, and blogs here.  Prior to his sojourn to the land of academia he had pastored in the local church.  I have never met Kevin in person, but perhaps I will someday, as he seems to be a kindred spirit, a deep thinker, and a lover of God.  

These facts are relevant to Watson’s writing, as they reveal the source of his depth and his clarity.  Watson writes for real people attempting to live the Christian faith within the bounds of everyday life.  Though he is now an academician, Watson remembers that his forebear, John Wesley, sought to equip people in practical Christianity, and writes accordingly.  As his title suggests, this small book chronicles a Wesleyan vision for discipleship and provides helpful wisdom and insight for small groups, pastors crafting a plan for discipleship within the local church, and individual Christians seeking formation in a distinctly Wesleyan way of Jesus Christ.

Watson begins his book by naming the crisis: it appears as though the central task of discipleship has been forgotten by the Christian people of our time.  For United Methodists, Watson pulls no punches, making certain that his audience is well aware that his denomination has been in decline for four decades and that willful ignorance of this fact “is done at our own peril.”  Watson asserts that this state of affairs can change, but to bring about change Methodist people must not “desperately hold on and try not to lose too many members” but must “depend on God’s grace, by breathing deeply of God’s Spirit, and…[allow] our lives to give witness to who Christ is and what he has done for us.”  Said differently, Watson issues a call for repentance–something I deeply appreciate.  At the center of Watson’s message is a strong theology of God’s prevenient, justifying, and sanctifying grace.  More than he may be aware, his account of grace given in his first twenty pages is a true gift to the church.

After naming the crisis and building a theological foundation for the Christian life, Watson paints a picture of the future for individual Christian believers.  Along with Wesley, Watson stresses personal and social holiness as the goal of the Christian life.  Watson states, “The goal of grace…is not just to save us from ourselves; it is to enable us to enter into a deeper and deeper relationship with God so that we are able to love God and our neighbor increasingly.”  Watson is sure to emphasize that the efficacy of God’s grace will result in varying vocations and expressions of holiness.  There will be those, like Mother Teresa, who are called to serve the outcasts in the streets of Calcutta.  But there will also be businessmen and women, parents, and persons working common trades who have been given no less a responsibility to follow Jesus in the context of “ordinary” life.  We are wise to remember that Jesus was a carpenter living in relative obscurity for the first thirty years of his earthly life, and by his example demonstrated that the with-God life can be fully experienced and expressed in the tasks of everyday living.

Once Watson has established that the calling of discipleship is for all people, he moves on to the historical examination of Wesley and his method for Christian discipleship.   The common difficulty faced by both Wesley and Christian leaders of our time is the need to establish a direction within which people may move from infancy to maturity as followers of Jesus Christ.  According to Watson, Wesley’s goal “was not to get as many people as he could to pray a certain prayer.  Rather, his goal was to get as many people as he could to trust in Christ, not just for one moment, but for the rest of their lives and with all of their lives.”  Watson clearly describes Wesley’s three levels of community which may assist in bringing people to maturity–the society meeting (akin to congregational worship), the class meeting (akin to a small group), and the band meeting (a meeting of a few, same-gender friends for personal accountability, including the confession of sin).  Within Methodist societies, these persons would strive to follow three general rules: 1) Do no harm; 2) Do all the good that you can; and 3) Attend upon the ordinances of God.

The heart of Watson’s work is an exploration of these three rules.  He carefully explains each rule, giving helpful, true to life illustrations alongside practical actions steps for the integration of each rule within daily life.  Watson also attends to the biblical basis for each rule, as he recognizes these practices were not an invention of Wesley, but are rather rooted in a much older, deeper story.  Following his treatment of the general rules, Watson attends to what he calls “balance points.”  These balance points are: 1) faith and works; 2) personal piety and social action; and 3) love of God and love of neighbor.  Each of these points have been treated extensively across Christian literature, but it is no surprise they surface here, as Watson is a Methodist.  Each of these three balance points are evident when Methodist people are at their best.

Watson ends his work with a call to follow Jesus. His vision is cast for Christ’s sake, not only for the sake of The United Methodist Church.  His call to follow is distinctly Wesleyan but broadly encompasses all Christians.  Watson states, “We have something that is good news, something that we are blessed to be the stewards of, and we will want to freely and boldly offer this gospel (which means good news!) to all the world.  We offer this good news, not because we want something from others, but because of a deep conviction that we have something they need to live life as God intends.  Living life to the fullness that God intends is, after all, what the Wesleyan blueprint for discipleship is all about!”

I truly appreciate this book from Kevin Watson.  Watson is on solid footing–logically, biblically, historically, theologically, and spiritually.  This book is written with the precise mind of a careful thinker and the heart of a pastor.  The challenge which remains to be met is that which he issues at the conclusion of his book, which includes a call to make a decision to follow Jesus in community with others, to put the general rules in to practice, to live a life of holiness, and to participate in God’s redemption of the world. 

I can only hope and pray all Christians, Methodist or otherwise, heed Watson’s challenge.

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This fall I had the opportunity to travel to Fayetteville, AR with Molly.  She attended a conference while I worked on my thesis project.  Molly had a tremendous week, while I made (slow) progress on a short preliminary document that took me all semester to complete.  One of the first sessions Molly attended featured Elaine A. Heath, who is the McCreless Assistant Professor of Evangelism at Perkins School of Theology, SMU.  Molly was excited about what she had heard, and believed much of the presentation would have resonated with me.  Dr. Heath had recently published a book which contained some of the insights she shared at the conference entitled The Mystic Way of Evangelism: A Contemplative Vision for Christian Outreach.  The next week I ordered the book from Amazon.com.  When someone speaks to me with enthusiasm about a book, an author, or an idea, I’m usually quick to pounce.  In this case I’m glad I did.

Heath’s title is telling and reveals the nature of her project, which to some may appear enigmatic.  What does the life of the mystic have to do with the life of the evangelist?  Can the deep, inner, contemplative life yield fruit for sharing the gospel and bringing people to Christian faith?  For Heath the answer is a resounding yes.  After recounting her first exposure to Christian evangelism Heath astutely observes, “there is a striking absence in most contemporary discussions of evangelism of the wisdom of the great spiritual giants…to shape and lead our understanding of the theory and practice of evangelism.”

Heath structures her book by utilizing the threefold contemplative path: purgation, illumination, and union.  First, Heath claims that the church in American is experiencing “a dark night of the soul” and proceeds to describe the “dryness and fruitlessness” experienced by many churches, the “flailing, the striving, and the…loss of desire” present in the life of some leaders, and the emergence of a deep and holy longing for God which brings with it a new day.  Heath describes the current malaise present in the church of today as a time of refinement and preparation for what God might bring about tomorrow.  Heath states, “the church in America is in transition, with Christendom fading into memory and the religious accretions of the world, the flesh, and the devil, increasingly apparent for what they are…We are ready for a different way to think about our vocation as the church.  It is time for us to discover a contemplative vision for evangelism.”

In part 2 (Illumination) Heath examines five major themes of the contemplative life and exalts two major examples per theme to bring life to her argument.  Heath discusses the experience of God’s love (Julian of Norwich and Hans Ur von Balthasar), holiness exhibited in lives reflective of eucharist (Phoebe Palmer and Father Arseny), the discovery of home/identity in God (Thomas R. Kelly and Henri Nouwen), the church’s collective need to confess her sins (Julia Foote and Mechthild of Magdeburg), and the healing of the earth (St. Bonaventure and John Woolman).  Each chapter utilizes these biographical examples well, allowing the content of each individual’s life inform the contemplative life of the church today.  Heath also helps us remember both women and men who can be heralded as saints and followed as examples.

In part 3 (Union) Heath utilizes the fictional account of Sam, a divorcee and parent of a teenage daughter, who comes in contact with a church embodying the contemplative life Heath is proposing.  Heath’s chapter titles, “A Hermeneutic of Love,” “Giving Ourselves Away,” “Homing Prayer,” “New Tongues of Fire,” and “Your Will Be Done on Earth” are in themselves revealing, and each chapter tells how Sam learns of God’s nature, the Christian life of service, prayer, the presence of the Holy Spirit, and what the Christian life has to do with the here and now.

I enjoyed this book and would recommend it to church leaders and mature Christians interested in evangelism.  Heath’s approach is uncommon.  She goes beyond a way of packaging and presenting the Christian faith and instead calls the church to become holy, believing that the very life of the community has the power to draw and witness to the truth of the gospel.  Her argument acknowledges that the good news about Jesus does indeed have content, but couples the importance of the message with the integrity of the life the church leads.   Her emphasis on holiness and purity of character as primary is what I find so refreshing and increasingly vital for the church as she seeks to find her way.

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I like to read.  Last week I finished Kenneth E. Bailey’s Jacob & the Prodigal: How Jesus Retold Israel’s Story.  I enjoyed it thoroughly.

If you are a Christian you’ve probably heard “The Parable of the Prodigal Son” preached hundreds of time.  In all likelihood you’ve come to know the story well.  The comfort which comes with familiarity can at times yield dullness, as can be the case with texts we hear frequently.  This is why Kenneth Bailey’s work is so grand.  He invites you to think of this passage in fresh ways.

While I don’t plan to write an extensive review which traces the lines of Bailey’s argument, I do want to invite others to read this book and consider Luke 15 anew.  Bailey is right to examine this text as a complete unit, not only treating Jesus’ familiar story of the wayward younger son, his older brother, and the father who seeks them both, but also including the parable of the lost sheep and lost coin as important for Jesus’ theology.  The parable of the lost sheep is examined comparatively in light of Psalm 23, Jeremiah 23:1-8, Ezekiel 34:1-31.  The parable of the two sons is read in comparison with the Saga of Jacob found in Genesis 27-35.

If you are looking for fresh insight on this parable or plan to preach this text, I recommend that you pick up this book and read.  It is good, and left me with a deeper faith and greater love for God.

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This week I gladly received The Prodigal God: Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith through the mail (book website here).  What a blessing.  The book arrived yesterday during the 9:00 o’clock hour and I read through it in one sitting.  Written in a warm and engaging style, Timothy Keller’s reflection on the story traditionally known as “The Parable of the Prodigal Son” contains a challenging message for individuals and the church corporate as followers of Jesus Christ.

Keller’s book opens with a brief word on the popularity of this short parable and a justification for the author’s preference to title this story “The Two Lost Sons.”  Keller explains the power of this narrative as he has experienced it in his own life.  He tells of his hearing Edmund P. Clowney preach this text some thirty years ago and awakening him to a new and deeper understanding of the Christian faith, coming to find that within this short story the abundant grace of God is revealed not just to the younger brother, but to the older brother as well.  This grace did not only come at a cost to the younger brother, who carelessly wasted his inheritance, but cost the father as well.  The older brother was not exempt, either, as humbly welcoming the younger brother back home would have cost him a great deal.  The insight gained by reflecting on this passage has greatly informed Keller’s ministry at Redeemer Church in Manhattan, helping their community better embody the message of grace which is found in this famous utterance of Jesus.

Following a translation of the parable, Keller’s book is divided in to seven parts.  First, Keller explains the biblical and cultural context in which this story takes place, helping the reader to better recognize the finer nuances of Jesus’ storytelling.  Keller points out the type of people who had come near to hear this story, showing that the crowd consisted of religiously devout and religiously marginal persons.  He demonstrates how each segment of the crowd would have identified with a different brother in the story.  Here Keller muses on “why people like Jesus but not the Church,” pointing out that Jesus seemed to draw unto himself all kinds of people–particularly those in his culture of the lowest piety who are depicted as the “younger brother” in Jesus’ story.  Keller muses, “If the preaching of our ministers and the practice of our parishioners do not have the same effect on people Jesus had, then we must not be declaring the same message that Jesus did.  If our churches aren’t appealing to younger brothers, they must be more full of elder brothers than we’d like to think.”

Keller’s discussion then moves to the Two Lost Sons.  He explains the way in which each son had developed a wayward relationship with their father.  Both elder and younger son are fair game for critique.  Keller questions why this passage has not received a more well rounded treatment, noting that many times this story is told in a way that emphasizes how the younger son was welcomed home by the father to the neglect of the father’s appeal to the elder brother.  From here, Keller explores how Jesus’ story redefines both sin and lostness, noting that the text is revolutionary in this regard.  In his discussion of sin, Keller notes how each son had rebelled, “but one did so by being very bad and the other by being extremely good…It’s a shocking message: Careful obedience to God’s law may serve as a strategy for rebelling against God.”  Keller moves us to a deeper understanding.  Rather than regarding sin as a list of wrongs, Keller points out that rebellion takes many forms, including those who in the tradition of the elder brother seek to be obedient for their own gain rather than for the glory of God.  Keller sees the older brother’s obedience in the story as undertaken for the purpose of controlling the father.  How often we also fall in to a similar pattern of behavior.

Keller’s chapter on redefining lostness was perhaps the most poignant, bringing forth a deep sense of emotion in my own soul.  Here he explores the anger and superiority of the elder brother and the “joyless, fear-based” faith which can come to typify religious belief when one seeks to control God rather than express love and devotion for the Divine.  This chapter, which stands at the heart of the book, may be the most important for those of us who stand within the church, and perhaps have obtained the attitudes and posturing of elder brothers.  Keller’s reminder that elder-brother lostness is just as wrong and destructive as younger brother lostness is important.

From this point Keller explores the nature of the gospel. Keller uses this parable to demonstrate God’s relationship to us and how we might repent in a well-rounded way.  In the story we are often reminded of how the younger brother turned from those things that he did wrong, and we feel compelled to do the same.  Keller reminds us of the other extreme, saying, “To truly become Christians we must also repent of the reasons that we ever did anything right.”  The gospel calls us to acknowledge all that God has done for us freely and by grace.  Christ has accomplished all things necessary for our salvation.  Even the faithful need a reminder that our hope ultimately rests in God; we should not seek to become our own Savior and Lord.  According to Keller it is Jesus, our true elder brother, who leaves us in a state of awe and wonder concerning the grace of God.

Keller’s book closes with a two part reflection on the nature of our longing for home and an eschatological vision for the redemption of individuals and for all creation which will be celebrated in a heavenly banquet described in this parable and elsewhere in Scripture.  Keller is very clear in presenting a view of the atonement consistent with his heritage (Presbyterian), and does an excellent job of painting a picture of the experiential nature of salvation in the here and the hereafter.

Keller’s book is a gift for those of us longing for deep reflections on Scripture.  This book is worthwhile reading for those seeking insight in to one of Jesus’ most well known parables, and will serve as a challenge to your faith.  I would recommend this book.

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