Posts Tagged ‘book review’

VGGI should state at the outset of my review that I am a white, 46 year-old, educated, public special education teacher who happens also to be a man. I am a Christian and I have bachelors degree in theology and bible teaching and a masters degree in education. I am a public school teacher as a second career so I am not very far up the pay scale and thus I am, by definition, not-wealthy. Finally, I am married and have children. I want to dispel, at the outset, any of the concerns my readers may have about whether or not I am biased or prejudiced in any way at all.

Well…I suppose I am. I suppose everyone has a fault or two they have to reckon with in this lifetime while they work out their salvation with fear and trembling. Reading this book, I got the sense that Ms Harper has all the sins of everyone in the world pegged–and there are a lot of sins to reckon with according to her, plenty of guilt to go around. I am not entirely opposed to her pointing out sin–preachers, good and bad alike, do that. The problem I had with this book is that the majority of sins in this world have, evidently and only, been committed by a very small minority of people; namely, rich, white, men in positions of power. And as I read through the book as a relatively poor white man, who has evidently been handed everything in life because of my relatively pale skin color, I couldn't help but wonder if the solutions to the world's problems would go away if all the white men who have exploited black people and poor people and the environment and women and other minorities; who have schemed and exploited and pillaged their way to economic prosperity; who have never suffered at the hands of anyone; would simply repent or, well, die.

The subtitle of the book is 'How Everything Wrong Can Be Made Right.' This is audacious to say the least because her solution has very little to do with what Paul describes as the Gospel in 1 Corinthians 15:1-11. What is more amazing, however, is that as I read through the book which is thick with what some might call the 'Liberal Democrat Presidential Platform,' is this: there are people all around who think that her solutions to the problems she describes can be solved in better, less blame-assigning, guilt-compounding, accusatory ways. What is amazing is that someone who would agree with her every single jot and tittle has been president of the U.S. of A. for the last seven and a half years–and yet this book was still deemed necessary. The policies she would champion have been the policies of this nation for nearly eight years…and yet this book was still necessary?!

You may well have guessed that I didn't like this book. I will give a few reasons for my dislike. (I assure you my dislike is purely philosophical and theological.) Aside from the pretense of being a book about 'solutions' when it's really a book about 'blame', Harper has an a prior commitment to a view of Scripture that I don't think most conservative Christians readers will find helpful. For example, she dates the book of Genesis as "the youngest of the first five books of the Bible, like written just after the fall of Babylonian empire and at the end of the exilic period (ca. 538-450 BCE)" (18). Throughout the book she will use short phrases like 'most scholars now believe' (e.g., 143). This is misleading, at best, because it depends entirely upon which 'scholars' one reads. Among her favorites are Gerhard von Rad, Walter Brueggemann, Phyllis Trible, and Jim Wallis–none of whom are recognized for their theological or canonical conservatism. It is easy enough to find a host of Bible scholars who can produce compelling linguistic, archaeological, theological, and historical reasons for early dates of important Bible books like Genesis (and, furthermore, demonstrate compelling reasons why such books as the Pentateuch are not scraps cobbled together by some imaginary priestly class but are unified wholes written with a singular purpose, by a single author). 

She also makes selective use of statistics. For example, she notes that in 2015, "forty percent of unarmed people killed by police were black men, yet they make up only six percent of the national population." But this is only part of the statistic (and it may not be entirely true because it does not tell us the racial demographics of the cops who shot 'unarmed' black men or the circumstances under which they were killed, etc.; don't get me wrong: I am no fan of the current authoritarian tactics of many police forces across this county. My point which is that this statistic is selective at best and misleading at worst.) It doesn't take much effort to do a google search and come up with a set of statistics that demonstrate that black men kill each other at an alarming rate in this country–a fact perhaps more lamentable than the fact that police kill all sorts of unarmed people–Black, White, Latino, etc. See this article by Allen West for statistics that are easily verified. Statistics like this are used to prop up support for movements like 'black lives matter'. (She even advocates taking the 'Harvard Implicit Association Test' which, evidently, helps us know if we are racist ('implicit bias', 154).)

Another problem with the book is the constant whining. She constantly laments the slavery history of the United States. Yes. We all lament it. It is a terrible aspect of our history. Yet: "At the same time, the God-shaped abyss in my soul was hungry to be filled. Born black in a white world, a woman in a man's world, I became a child survivor of bullying, sexual abuse, and divorce. I was lost and trying my best to be okay" (61). Or, "I suffered the humiliation of being placed in general-education classes even though I had been in the highest reading group in a competitive class in Philadelphia" (55; the students in my special education class would not think being in general education a humiliation; nor would the 98% of the population who also 'suffered' in GE). But seriously. Everyone has had to suffer. I am a white man and no one has handed me anything. I was bullied as a young boy and worse. I grew up poor. I'm still paying for my education. We all have a history. But I submit that my suffering is no worse than hers; and hers no worse than mine. It's different, but none of it is beyond the hope of Jesus. Part of the glory of belonging to Jesus is that we are not defined by our history, but by our future. A significant part of the problem with this book and its underlying assumptions is that it is mired in the past, seemingly unable to think about Jesus has, indeed, set us free. We are called to forget what is behind and press on to what Messiah has taken hold us for.

Kingdom making means acknowledging sin and repenting, making recompense when necessary, and pressing forward in hope. It doesn't mean dwelling in the past or oppressing people with guilt for the sins of their fathers.

Finally, there are some things in this book that are simply mind-mindbogglingly absurd and beyond my ability to believe. For example, Harper would have her readers believe that climate-change related conditions are largely responsible for the rise of such terrorism organizations as ISIS. "Imagine living in a land where there is no water," she writes. She then goes on to explain that because Syria had no water, a vacuum was created, people revolted against al-Assad, a war resulted, and (sarcasm deleted) ISIS was born (107-109)! All of this because of climate change–something for which there is no scientific consensus! (It seems to me that ISIS was created because some people in the world like to kill other people in the name of their religion–a point that doesn't escape Harper when it comes to white slave owners from another era but does when it comes to Islam.)

Enough of the problems with this book. I assure you I can go on for another thousand words, but I won't. My point in highlighting these points is to note that her arguments are open to interpretation at best and specious at worst. I am simply an optimist and this book is far too rife with blame and accusation to be of any useful optimistic hope. I think it will appeal to a certain part of the population, but I think many folks will see the logical holes, the fallacious arguments, the distorted history, and the misappropriation of Scripture and put the book down. Or never buy it to begin with.

I do want to end on one positive note. Of all that I have criticized, and I assure you I have more that I want to say, I did find chapter 10, "Shalom Between the Nations" to be an exceptionally well written and compelling chapter (aside from her application of Jubilee on pages 169-170). Here I think that Harper gets it right when she talks about the way 'empire' has corrupted the vision God has for this world in Jesus. She has some excellent observations about how 'war' and 'empire' are mentioned together early in the Biblical narrative (165) and how our leaders tend towards corruption and oppression. I thought she also had some rather brilliant thoughts about how the problem of 'empire' can be salved, "God has broken into the universe to disrupt the reign of humanity. A confrontation is brewing between the dominion of humanity and the dominion of God. God will confront the rulers of this world in the person of Jesus" (174). I think the confrontation already happened at the cross and in the resurrection. Nevertheless, this is, in my opinion, the best paragraph in the entire book.

Sadly it doesn't make the book worth buying. There are twelve chapters, a forward by Water Brueggemann, a conclusion, and end notes. It begins with a short 'study' (chapters 1-3) of the early chapters of Genesis and then drives into a more practical and political  application of what Shalom will look like in areas such as self, gender, creation, families, race, nations, and God himself. Each chapter concludes with a 'Reflection Exercise' where we are invited to do things like support the Paris agreement (115), support Black Lives Matter (156, 160 #6), and listen to the stories of women (99) among much else.

The problem is that this is not a book of Good News, Gospel. It is not a book about how the death and resurrection of Jesus already confronted the world and how through it God has begun to set things to rights. It's a book about all the things that Harper perceives as injustice or inequity in this world and her leftist political agenda for fixing them–I dislike the terms 'leftist' and 'right wing', but for lack of better terminology at this point, I submit to their use. I don't think we can have it both ways: the government cannot at once be the problem and the solution. If the Gospel is the solution, then the solutions will come one person at a time. Slowly. As a mustard seed takes root.

In some cases, she is correct in her identification of the problems, but misses the mark entirely in her solutions. And if I as a white, 'privileged', man have my biases, it's hard to see how Harper has none. I read a lot in this book about how she has been humiliated, shamed, or treated unfairly–none of it is right or just. I agree.

But I read very little, if anything, about her own culpability. Everyone in the book is guilty: Abraham. David. Solomon. Cops. Ben Franklin. White men. Adam. Her parents. And many more.

Everyone seems guilty. Except her. 

1/5 Stars

Important Book & Author Things

  • Where to purchase Subversive Jesus (Amazon, $14.00)
  • Author: Lisa Sharon Harper
  • On the Web: Lisa Sharon Harper
  • On Twitter: @lisasharper
  • Academic Webpage:
  • Editor:
  • Publisher: WaterBrook Press
  • Pages: 227
  • Year: 2016
  • Audience: I'm not sure
  • Reading Level: High School
  • Disclaimer: I was provided a free copy of this book via the Blogging for Books bloggers review program in exchange for my fair and unbiased review.
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41wJvgywzYL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_In today's circles of American Churchianity, leadership is all the rage. There are seminars, Twitter pages, books galore, and so much more teaching us how to be the leaders we ought to be in the world and in the church. Walk into a Christian book store and I'm certain you will find an entire section of shelving dedicated entirely to books about leadership. It is really quite a sight to behold.

Into the fray of those who claim to know what leadership is and how we ought to do it jumps mega-mega church leader Perry Noble and his latest tome, The Most Excellent Way to Lead, a book about, you guessed it, leadership. The entire book is based on his novel idea that when Paul wrote 1 Corinthians 13 he had in mind leadership. Thus: "Paul is continuing his discussion about leadership here, and when he says he's going to show you the most excellent way, I believe he's saying, 'I will show you the most excellent way to lead.'" (6) This is most convenient for the outline of the book (but I seriously doubt that is what Paul was writing about in 1 Corinthians 12-14 or that Paul had any inkling towards American mega-church leadership styles).

Each chapter then explores leadership from the perspective of love. That is, if love is patient, so is leadership. If love is kind, so is leadership. And so on and so forth all the way through to 'Love never fails.' This is a novel approach to leadership and along the way Mr Noble explores leadership as love through the lenses of his own experience of success and failure. He is rather transparent in the book and some of his stories are nice and others are funny and a couple I simply did not believe were true at all. I can take or leave his anecdotes.  There were too many illustrations about himself (for example, the number of times he reminded his readers that his church has 400 staff members and a $50 million dollar budget; I didn't care the first time and I didn't care the last time and to be sure, nothing about either of those statistics necessarily means he is an expert on anything.)

The end of each chapter features a page with several 'summary statements' about the material found in the preceding chapter. This will make excellent Tweets if the reader happens to be on Twitter and I suspect that is exactly what they are there for. There are also a series of questions for the reader as well: questions to ask yourself (about your own leadership) and questions to 'ask your team.'

Along the way he pieces together some leadership ideas from the story of David and Saul found in 1 Samuel. This is fine; although, again, I seriously doubt that it was leadership in particular that the author of those stories had in mind. I have a hard time with books that use Scripture in this way–as if it were written to satisfy a set of principles or ideas that we have about how to do things in a culture thousands of years removed from theirs. I am not sure that this is why Scripture is or was written and preserved for us so many years later and I am going to deduct points in every review I write that treats the Bible as a mere handbook of principles for whatever the cause du jour happens to be.

In some ways, this book felt like insulation for Mr Noble. Mr Noble is a preacher, excuse me, leader, at a very large church in South Carolina–over 400 staff and a $50 million budget!–and that means he is exposed a lot. We have seen in the recent years that a lot of mega-church preachers have fallen into disrepute and scandal and have brought great shame upon themselves and their churches. So, in some ways, exposing, in book form, the inner workings of how he does things at the place he leads kind of serves as insulation for the decisions he makes along the way. That's how a lot of this came off to me while I was reading. In other words, it's awfully difficult to criticize the guy who has written a book about how to do the very things he is doing.

The bottom line is this, there's nothing inherently wrong with the book–my complaint about his 'use' of Scripture notwithstanding. There are a lot of helpful principles, thoughts, and ideas that people in leadership positions can use to help their organization be a much better place. And how can a person complain about a book where love is somewhat the focus? It's true. That is a difficult thing to do. Nevertheless, I didn't find that book all that appealing or interesting–and mostly because I did have such a hard time with the way he used the Bible to formulate his outline. If you are one of those folks who sucks up leadership books by John Maxwell or whoever, you will enjoy this book. If you are not, you won't. The book has a limited audience, in my opinion.

This is a one-off review of a book written by someone whose sermons I have never listened to, whose church I have never attended, and whose other books I have never read. I'm sure in a lot of places Mr Noble is well respected and loved and admired and among his peers, these thoughts will resonate. Perhaps justly so. Jesus said that if we want to lead, we should follow; that the first will be last; that we should take up our cross and deny ourselves. Jesus said the servant is not greater than the Master who washes feet. Jesus said, simply, love one another. None of this, to be sure, Noble will deny. But at the end of the day, that is not how he comes off in this book.

Noble tells his readers that "if I'm going to receive criticism from someone, they need to meet the following requirements: 1) they must love Jesus, 2) they must love the church, 3) they must love me." (122) What he doesn't tell us is if he himself has to meet the same standards. It might be implied, but it's not explicitly stated.

He tells us over and over and over, from the first page to the last, that he is a leader. That tells us what we need to know about the content. What we must ask ourselves is this: does Noble's vision of leadership correspond with what Jesus told us about being a disciple. Really. That's where it breaks down for me.

Leadership is overrated.

2/5 Stars

Important Book & Author Things

  • Where to purchase The Most Excellent Way to Lead (Amazon, $9.89)
  • Author: Perry Noble
  • On the Web:
  • On Twitter:
  • Academic Webpage:
  • Editor:
  • Publisher: Tyndale House Publishers
  • Pages: 288
  • Year: 2016
  • Audience:
  • Reading Level: High School
  • Disclaimer: I was provided a free copy of this book via the Tyndale blogger review program in exchange for my fair and unbiased review.

IndexI suppose the right thing to do, based on the current status of this book on Amazon (95% of the reviews are 5-Star), is to write a favorable, positive review and post it for everyone to read and enjoy. I'm a little late to the game so I feel no particular compulsion to be altogether favorable in my review.

To be fair, however, I don't think Ms Wojo wrote this book with any man (aside from her husband)  whatsoever in mind so it could be that she simply wasn't speaking to my version of the species. That's fine and at the heart of my review is that thought: the book simply did not speak to me as a man. There's nothing sexist or unfair about that assessment. Rather, just an honest evaluation of where I was with this book.

On the other hand, sentences like this: Before you know it, the feeling of wanting to give up has saturated your spirit and you feel like you can't take even one more step. You have lost every ounce of strength in your mind, body, and spirit" seem to speak across the sexes and engulf us all in the pathos of her writing and I think, at times, she does a good job of remind all readers that God is available, that he understands us, and that he is consistent.

The book is a very self-centered book and I don't mean that in a pejorative way. I simply mean that the book is about Ms Wojo and her life experiences: her joys, her sorrows, her marriage, her children, her faith, and her life. It is mixed with stories from the Bible and she is trying to understand her life in light of those stories she reads in the Bible. And although I have no use whatsoever for her particular 'use' of Scripture (stories generally pulled from context and applied to situations the Bible writers did not envision), I do appreciate the fact that the book is filled with more than an abundance of Scripture spread throughout the book. I would appreciate more context for those stories, but that's just a personal thing.

The book is also very typically a book about the 'problems' of American Christians. I don't think this book will have much of an audience in poorer nations where Christians are actually suffering. However, it will appeal to many in the mainstream American church where Christians suffer from the pressures of pressure, fatigue, burnout, poopy diapers, grocery shopping, and child-rearing. I'm not at all discounting the struggles of Ms Wojo at all. Struggles they are; and real. But there is a sense in this book that much of what she has struggled with is uniquely American and could be solved as much by a trained secular psychologist. Again, I'm not discounting the real pain she has endured in her life. That's not my point, so please don't misunderstand the point I am making which is that while some folks may relate to her easily, I think there is also a lot who will not.

Each chapter deals with some particular issue Ms Wojo has experienced in her life and she works hard to relate this to our Christian experience by blending stories, Scripture, quotes, and more into a narrative that explores feelings, and emotions and which eventually draws out some principles designed to guide us through the negativity often felt because of these experiences. At the end of each chapter readers will find "Pillars of Truth to Lean On", a bullet point list of Scriptures associated with the chapter's content. Finally, there are "Stepping Stones' at the end of the chapters which are coordinated with the One More Step journal.

At the end of the book, readers will find Discussion Questions, some perfectly Tweetable block quotes, acknowledgements, a selection of hymn titles that guided the writing of the book, information relating to MPS, and end notes.

Again, I am certain this book will find its way into the hands of someone who needs to read this book. Unfortunately, I wasn't one of those people. There's nothing particularly wrong with the book. I just didn't like it or find that it spoke to me where I am at. That doesn't mean it won't be helpful for others especially those going through difficult times of the loss of a child or or a parent or a child with a particular disability. At the end, she points them to Jesus: "Jesus not only heals broken hearts, but he also transforms broken hearts into his hands and feet that carry his love and share it with others" (192).

That's enough for anyone and would have been a fantastic opening salvo.

3/5 Stars

Important Book & Author Things

  • Where to purchase One More Step (Amazon, $8.99)
  • Author: Rachel Wojo
  • On the Web:
  • On Twitter:
  • Academic Webpage:
  • Editor:
  • Publisher: WaterBrook Multnomah
  • Pages: 208
  • Year: 2015
  • Audience: Probably Ladies
  • Reading Level: High School
  • Disclaimer: I was provided a free copy of this book via the Waterbrook Multnomah blogger review program in exchange for my fair and unbiased review.

Prayer pointsThis is a very nice book as far as its aesthetic value is concerned. I like very much the compact size and the faux leather appearance. The cover is also imprinted with a verse of Scripture (Psalm 145:18) and some trees along the spine. The copy I received also contains a small dust cover which covers about 2/3 of the book and repeats the title of the book and other important information. I like the dust cover and I am typically loathe to dispense with certain features of a book such as dust covers; however, if I am to use this book as I think it is intended to be used, I will have to dispense with the cover.

Inside there is a nice ribbon like book mark to give it an even deeper appearance of biblical spirituality. One might even mistake this small book for a Bible.

So much for appearances. Let's move on to the more important aspect of a book: content. First, the book is, to be sure, a collection of prayer points arranged topically so that seemingly whatever problem the reader is having, there is a prayer at her fingertips. So, are you feeling empty? There's a prayer for you. Are you feeling overwhelmed? There's a prayer for you. In a car accident? There's a prayer for you. Are you struggling with worldliness? There's a prayer for you. Just imagine you are having some sort of trouble in life and there's a prayer for you in this book: emotional, physical, relational, spiritual–they are all there. Sometimes the topics seem a bit contrived, but they are there.

Therein, however is the main problem with this book: it presupposes that the only times we will (or need to) pray are when life really, really sucks. There are no prayer points in the book for times of joy, blessing, gratefulness, for thankfulness, finding a job, for having friends, for good health. There are no prayers of thanksgiving for Jesus, for the cross, for resurrection, or for God's provision. Why is there an assumption that the only time we pray is when things are not going well?

Second, there is nothing terribly wrong with the prayers as such. They are thoughtful and worded well, generally refer the reader back to Scripture, and stay close to the topic being addressed. Sadly, this presents another point of criticism: the topical arrangement of the prayers and associated Scriptures. The Bible was not written topically. Don't get me wrong, because I understand well the point and I understand well that Christians 'use' the Scripture in this way far too often and far too comfortably. It's like we are afraid of the big picture/story the Bible is painting for readers so we break it up into small, seemingly comprehensible, pithy statements we can absorb in a single gulp.

But this is not how the Bible was written and I will continue to mark down every book I review that uses Scripture in this way. It's not even fair or right to do this to books of the Bible that lend themselves to this sort of game–say, for example, the Psalms or the Proverbs. Even those two books were written/edited with a singular purpose in mind and it seems to me that it is unfair to yank passages out of that context to make a point about to pray when you've been in a car accident. In my opinion, this does damage to Scripture and to the intentions of the authors who wrote the books we call Scripture. I have no problems with praying the Scripture and I think we should pray the Scripture, but what I have in mind is something substantially different from the manner in which most books use Scripture.

Third, if I recall correctly, nearly every single prayer in the book contains some version of the words 'Lord…I claim your promise…' I do not come from a tradition of Christianity that has embraced this way of praying so I'm not saying it is necessarily wrong to 'claim' a 'promise' that is in Scripture. (The editor used many different variations of this phrase such as 'seek,' 'claim,' 'embrace,' 'long for,' 'hold on to,' 'cherish,' and so on and so forth. Frankly it became kind of boring after a while.) It might just be me, but I think there is a better way to pray. I didn't see Jesus saying this was how we are to pray when we do. Again, this is not to say it's 'wrong', it's just to say that I have not been taught to pray in this way and it may sound awkward to some people who are learning to pray for the first time using this book. Which takes us back to point two which is the way we understand the point of Scripture. Are those promises we are 'claiming' promises in context? Are they in line with God's plans and purposes in this world? We must be very careful, in my opinion, when praying in such a way.

On the other hand, it's a book of prayers that someone wrote, collected, and published. It's terrible difficult to be critical of a book of prayers because prayers are not generally offered to other people for review purposes. Prayers are meant to be prayed, not reviewed, and as such they are offered to the Father. So my review here is of a 'book', not of the prayers per say. Whatever else may be said about these books, I say this: if they draw the reader into a meaningful prayer life with the Father, then who am I to criticize? If the out of context Scripture references draw someone into a meaningful reading of entire books of the Bible, then who am I to criticize? At the heart of this book is someone's thoughts and prayers written with the Lord in mind. This is a good thing.

Someone, somewhere is going to benefit from this collection of prayers. Of that I am sure. And with that in mind, I am glad Tyndale published a book of prayers. For this reason, I happily award the book three stars. One star is deducted for the way it 'uses' Scripture and another star is deducted because of the overall gloomy feel to the book, i.e., the lack of prayers for the good times. We do not always have to be in a funk in order to pray and that's what I think this book lacks the most.

3/5 stars

Important Book & Author Things

  • Where to purchase Prayer Points: Praying God's Promises at Your Point of Need: Amazon (Imitation Leather, $13.99)
  • Author:
  • On the Web:
  • On Twitter:
  • Academic Webpage:
  • Editor: Ken Petersen, General Editor
  • Publisher: Tyndale House Publishers
  • Pages:
  • Year: 2015
  • Audience: 324
  • Reading Level: High school
  • Disclaimer: I was provided a free copy of this book via the Tyndale Blog Network in exchange for my fair and unbiased review.

978-1-63146-516-1Me and a friend have been working our way through some pretty good books. I'm just a little more ahead of him, but he is plowing his way through slowly and making some amazing discoveries in the works of Scott McKnight and NT Wright among others. We have both had our theological worlds shredded–and for the better!–but we always kept coming back to the same question: how does this 'reign of Jesus'/'kingdom of God'/'Jesus is King' stuff play out in every day church/christian life?

That is really the question any theology needs to answer, in my opinion. I think NT Wright is brilliant theologically and Scott McKnight is spot on when it comes to the Kingdom of God and the Gospel. But I think even they would admit that if their theology has no practical legs, it's not worth all that much when it comes to the church. This is why, in my opinion, their work is so refreshing: it has legs, and arms, and hands, and so much more. It's not just for the head or even the heart. It's for those who work. This is the problem I have found with my own tradition's theology for so long. It limits itself to a mere 'join the club' type of rhetoric. It appeals to the head, sometimes the heart, but rarely to the appendages. Too much it focuses on getting 'saved' without really understanding or knowing what that means.

This is where Michael Frost's book Surprise the World has picked up what was lacking in my own understanding and in a few short pages provided a shell to enhance the framework and platform built by McKnight and others. I am not saying McKnight or Wright are devoid of practicality, so don't misunderstand my point. Nor am I saying that Frost is devoid of the framework or platform. I simply haven't read enough of Frost to know at this point. In short: I like this book. A lot.

I like this book because Frost, who has heretofore been unknown to me, bridges the small gap that I think exists between a robust Kingdom theology and a robust 'here's how Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places' practicality. This is not to say that these other two are devoid of practicality. Not at all. It's just that in this book by Frost one is able to see the platform and the framework upon which he is constructing his ideas. His near constant use of the phrase 'God's reign and rule' to under gird these 5 habits is what captured and held my attention. Here is a christianity that is finally getting out of itself. This is no mere book about habits to make you a better you. This is a book about getting out of you and into Jesus–it's about bringing his rule and reign to bear on this world in meaningful, Kingdom driven, Christlike ways. It's about having a solid reason to be a missionary every day instead of the mere 'hey, it's time to get saved and join the club' kind of rhetoric that we typically hear from our pulpits.

He is focusing primarily on 'mission' in the book and the way we go about bringing God's reign and rule to bear on this earth. He writes, "Mission is not primarily concerned with church growth. It is primarily concerned with the reign and rule of the Triune God." (21) It is this idea that permeates the book and supports his ideas. I love it! "Mission is both the announcement and the demonstration of the reign of God through Christ" (21). He couldn't be more correct and in this I begin to make the connection between the 'drowning' and the 'breathing.' I will spare you my thoughts on missionary work, but suffice it to say that perhaps a new model is needed in some parts of the world.

The only part of the book that kind of bothers me is the habit of 'listening.' It's not that I think listening to the Holy Spirit is a bad idea. Far from it. But this idea of 'centering prayer'…I'm just not sure about because, frankly, it sounds weird. Prayer is prayer. I get that he clears up any confusion that it might be confused with Eastern meditation. That's good. But for all the emphasis he places on being in tune with Scripture and Jesus I found this chapter/habit to be lacking. Prayer is prayer. Silence is silence. I think it's quite OK to be quiet during prayer and let the Holy Spirit pray for us. 'Centering prayer', frankly, bothers me precisely because of the imagery that it brings to mind. I'm sure the Bible even talks about meditating day and night on the Scripture, but again I think this is something different from what Frost is suggesting. I'm willing to be wrong on this point, but right now I remain unconvinced. Maybe I'm bothered by calling it 'centering prayer.' Maybe not. I simply do not see, in the Scripture, and overwhelming call for Christians to engage in this sort of prayer life. That's my opinion.

The other habits, though, are spot on in my judgment: blessing, eating, learning, and being sent. I especially love the part of learning about Jesus. We simply do not do enough of this because we are too concerned about getting people to say a 'sinner's prayer' or getting them baptized or whatever. Let's slow down and learn from and of the Master. 

I have minor quibbles with the way he interprets some Scripture. For example, is take on 1 Corinthians 11:23-28, is a bit strange, but it doesn't necessarily impede what he is saying. Sometimes his language is a bit awkward. For example, I don't know what it means to 'craft a blessing' (38) but I'm not willing to build a mountain of protest against it. I simply think that blessings are often more random and spontaneous than planned or 'crafted.' Other times, I found his writing to be quite breathtaking. For example, when talking about reconciliation between God and humans being at the heart of Christ's work on the cross, he draws the obvious conclusion that such reconciliation between warring people should be a core expression of God's reign and rule (87). To this I offer a hardy Amen. I suppose more Christians need to hear this–especially some who call themselves 'conservative' and yet go out of their way to wish death upon anyone who wants to see peace with those who practice Islam and upon those who practice Islam.

It is such 'conservative' Christians who have turned me off completely to the conservative movement in the church. We should pray for peace, pray for our enemies, and feed those who wish to bring us harm–as evidence that Jesus rules and reigns in our own lives too. We have a long way to go in our understanding of Jesus and the church if there is a single person among us who wishes death to another human being simply because they wish death upon us. Jesus did not call us to hate those who hate us, but to bless them. We do not promote the reign and rule of God through force or violence or aggression or through inflamed rhetoric, but only through a loving embrace, a hardy meal, and through the imitation of Jesus.

Jesus healed the blind, the lame, the lepers, and the deaf–and even raised the dead–as evidence of God's kingdom coming in glory. Therefore, it should be reasonable to suggest that wholeness, the healing of broken people, is primary evidence of that reign today. (92)

This is a short and yet remarkable book. I am always glad when the Lord brings to me a book like this and I am even happier when I can write a positive review to share with my friends. I highly recommend this book. To be sure, Frost is recommending that we make these five habits (BELLS) more than mere habits. "I want you to make a habit of them. I want you to inculcate these habits as a central rhythm of your life…Missional effectiveness grows exponentially the longer we embrace these habits and the deeper we go with them" (99). It's hard to disagree.

I want to say exercise caution, but I also want to say to live under His rule and reign with reckless abandon. The simplest acts of blessing and grace can be missionary work. This book helps the reader see that even in the seemingly small acts of blessing God works mightily. You do not need to be trained in preaching or missions to be a missionary. You need to be willing to be a blessing to all, feed anyone and everyone, pray with all kinds of prayers, learn about our Master, and get sent into the world.

5/5 Stars

Important Book & Author Things

  • Where to purchase Surprise the World (Amazon, $4.99, paperback); (Tyndale, $4.99, paperback)
  • Author: Michael Frost
  • On the Web:
  • On Twitter: Michael Frost
  • Academic Webpage: Michael Frost
  • Editor:
  • Publisher: NavPress
  • Pages: 125
  • Year: 2015
  • Audience:
  • Reading Level: High School
  • Disclaimer: I was provided a free copy of this book via the Tyndale Blog Network in exchange for my fair and unbiased review.

032661I know that the popular thing to do when getting free books in exchange for reviews is to write a wildly favorable review that causes readers to swoon and books sales to accelerate. Every time I write a review for one of these publishers, and the review happens to be negative, I sit on my hands to avoid biting my nails while I wait for their email informing me I'm no longer a member of the club. I have to be especially careful when writing reviews of books written by so-called celebrity pastors.

Whatever.

I didn't like this book. I'm not sorry about that. I found it very difficult to engage Smith's writing style and I don't think he's particularly funny. I found it very difficult to understand his use of Scripture (I mean, if you are going to put at the beginning of each chapter that we ought to read such and such a Scripture, the I think the author ought to deal with the entire passage of Scripture, in context.) And frankly, I am tired to death of the 40 day metaphor. It is time-worn, boring, and just a little ridiculous at this point in the history of Americanized Christianity.

Each chapter, as noted, has a reference to a passage of Scripture the reader is to read, a few pages of 'devotional' material, and some questions for reflection at the end of each chapter. There are, surprise, 40 chapters. There is nothing coherent about the selections of Scripture that author wants us to read. I'm not about to speculate as to why he chose them; it's a chicken and egg kind of thing: did he write the devotionals to fit the Scripture or choose the Scripture to fit the devotionals? I'm just not sure. But the problem with such a motley collection of Scripture is that they can be made to say anything we want and fit any context we want. This is the main problem with many of these types of books.

What I am anxious for is an author who has the nerve to write a devotional that travels through an entire book of the Bible and whose devotionals consistently hammer home the point the Scripture is hammering home. But that's not how devotionals are written; that's how commentaries are written. And we certainly wouldn't want anyone to mistake a private, 40 day devotional, for a hardy, stout commentary. I will continue to belabor this point in my book reviews because I am convinced it is a massive misuse of Scripture's intended purpose and that it does not strengthen the church but, in fact, weakens it. The Biblical authors wrote cohesive books that pointed to Jesus. Not short, pithy passages that helped us navigate through the trials of America.

At some point, someone has to listen.

Another significant problem I had is this. I'll grant you that Smith has 300 some thousand  Twitter followers. That's great. That doesn't mean that any of us actually know him (I'm not one of them.) I'm not going to bother noting all the times a chapter began like this: "I…". A few will suffice to make the point:

  • I have a reaction when dogs approach me. (4)
  • I like Disney songs. (5)
  • I'm glad I'm no longer single. (6)
  • The other night I was up late. (12)
  • I'm fairly certain, after intense biblical research, that math is from the devil. (17)
  • When I was nineteen… (22)
  • I recently discovered the glorious phenomenon known as emoji. (28)

And so on and so forth.

I'm a little concerned about someone whose only experience seems to be with himself. I'm a little more concerned with someone who feels that the rest of us need to know about it in order to have the Word of God make sense to us. I do not mean that in jest at all. A serious question: why would I, as a reader, want to know so much about Judah Smith, a preacher I will never talk to, never meet, and whose life as a celebrity pastor contradicts everything that seems to me to make sense about the Jesus we are called to follow? Why so much 'I'? Truth? It's a little arrogant to think I am that interested.

Finally, I'm a little concerned with the overall intent of the book which is stated on the first page of the introduction to the book: "I hope these devotional thoughts and Scripture readings inspire you to live the fullest, most complete life possible. That's what God wants for you, and I believe he will show you how to do that as you learn to focus on him" (vii). How does he know that this is what God wants for me? And where is the Scriptural justification for making such a statement? Is it in John's Gospel, chapter 10? And if that is true, wouldn't it be better time spent reading the Gospel instead of this book? It's a shallow idea, to be sure.

I hate to say it, but I simply did not enjoy the book. It may be helpful or a good read for someone, it wasn't for me. Everyone seems to have an idea about what we need as Christians, but very few are pointing us in the right direction. I'm not sure this book lives up to that standard either. I agree that God's love is at times illogical, but I also think that God's love is profoundly logical. It does make sense even if it doesn't make sense. Because, Jesus.

It would have made better sense if he had written 40 days of meditations about Jesus instead of 40 days of meditations about himself. Jesus helps me understand God's love; this book did not.

1/5 Stars

Important Book & Author Things

  • Where to purchase Life is_____. Forty-Day Experience (Amazon, $12.13, paperback)
  • Author: Judah Smith
  • On the Web:
  • On Twitter: Judah Smith
  • Academic Webpage:
  • Editor:
  • Publisher: Thomas Nelson
  • Pages: 232
  • Year: 2015
  • Audience:
  • Reading Level: High School
  • Disclaimer: I was provided a free copy of this book via the Thomas Nelson BookLook Bloggers book review program.

Smile 1I was contacted by the author of the Smile & Succeed for Teens and asked if I would be willing to read and review the book on my blog. I agreed and several or a few days later I received a small packet in the mail from the author which included the book, a bookmark, a nice thank you card from the author, and a small promotional packet. It was all very nicely organized and put together. It made a good impression on me from the start.

I mention that I was contacted by the author because, frankly, this is not the sort of book I normally read and review. It's in a genre that I do not tend to gravitate towards, but I decided to go ahead and give it a whirl because a) I have teenage sons, b) who work in retain, and c) need to learn how to smile more.

It took only a day or so to read (it took me much longer to write the review, sadly) because it is not a particularly dense book. The book is illustrated nicely throughout which makes the reading speed along and provides some opportunities to learn a concept visually. I appreciated this and I think it will make the book a little more accessible to teen readers–the prospective and intended audience.

There are seven total chapters in the book dealing with topics related mostly to customer service and people skills. Key to the entire scheme is that people need to smile more and frequently. I remember hearing a lot of these ideas when I worked in retail. Such advice like smile when talking on the phone and making good eye contact are fairly standard protocols and not really unique. Nevertheless, for the beginner in any customer service related environment, these starter keys are going to be essential because they are simply things one mostly 'learns' through trial and error. Most training in the world of retail goes something like: here's what we do/sell, go out and do/sell it. Most training, at least in my retail experience, had little to do with how to actually carry yourself on the job. There was not a lot of emphasis, when I worked in retail (except when one fouled up and had to be corrected by 'the manager'), on the more personal side of customer service: patience, smiling, professionalism, etc. We were just always told 'the customer is always right' which is, to be sure, a crock of something but I suspect it was the best way our managers knew how to tell us to be nice to everyone even when they were so clearly wrong. It was also a way of saying, 'Neither your personal integrity matters nor that of the customer. Just find a way to get that dollar from their wallet into our cash register.'

This is probably why I do not work in retail. Be that as it may.

Other aspects of the book are fairly standard life skills regardless of whether you are working in retail or the sanitation department: be courteous, shake hands, look people in the eyes, say please and thank you, listen to people when they speak, and so on. These things are called common courtesy and I suspect that many of us–adults included–could stand a refresher course in these things. So, arming a teen with these helpful courtesies before we look at them and say 'Go get a job' might prove to make the world a happier place and retail a more pleasant experience for everyone–especially since our retail world is littered with teenagers working their first job.

I think this is a book that would be helpful to teenagers who are getting started in the world of employment but the really they are not the key. The key will be getting the word out to parents who might purchase this book for their child(ren) or employing people who work with teens to buy the book and give it to young people who would benefit from it. I should also point out, in case it hasn't figured out, this isn't just a book for teens or for kids who are working in the retail market. There is a lot in this book that will benefit humans in general. If this book gets into the hands of teens, I think the style and format will appeal to them because it's easy reading and the reading blocks are short. The print is a larger size which makes the pages go by rather quickly.

The book also contains 'Wired Tips' which are short, pithy attention grabbing truthy kind of sayings. There are a lot of bullet point lists which may appeal to those with short attention spans. There are also quotes from important people that usually have something to do with the content of the chapter. At the end of the book readers can find the notes from the book, a series of helpful service organizations that one may wish to be involved with on a volunteer basis, and a fairly substantial index (given the size of the book). The cover is appealing and eye catching and notes that the author has won some awards in his life. Finally, as mentioned above, the book is heavily illustrated which will appeal to those who, again, have different learning styles or short attention spans.

I'll be passing my reader's copy along to my own sons simply because I am hopeful they will start smiling more and perhaps find some helpful information they can use for their daily walk. I recommend the book. There's nothing inherently deep or earth shattering about the information contained inside. The author has done a fine job of putting his experience into a practical, hands-on, common sense way of dealing with people in virtually any walk of life. We all need to know how to smile more often and how to be courteous to other people.

PS-This book may also appeal to special education teachers who are working with students who are so-called 'higher functioning.' Teaching students who will be eligible to work among the general population to practice these common courtesies may prove worthy of our time especially since, in my experience, many such students start out working in general retail settings.

4.5/5 Stars

Important Book & Author Things

  • Where to purchase Smile & Succeed for Teens (Amazon $9.95, paperback)
  • Author: Kirt Manecke
  • On the Web: Smile the Book
  • On Twitter:
  • Academic Webpage:
  • Editor:
  • Publisher: Solid Press, LLC
  • Pages: 131
  • Year: 2014
  • Audience:
  • Reading Level: High School
  • Disclaimer: I was provided a free copy of this book by the author in exchange for my fair and unbiased review. 

BabylonThis book, Agents of Babylon, contains thirteen different chapters, an epilogue, an appendix, and a couple of other book sections. Each chapter is divided into roughly two sections. In the first section, Jeremiah offers his readers a 'fictional narrative about the subject of the chapter' (x) and in the second section he gives his readers an 'exposition of the Scripture behind the [fictional narrative].' It's a unique approach to a book written about the Bible and one that I did not fully appreciate. I read only the first three chapters of the 'fictional narrative' before skipping each subsequent one and going straight for the 'scripture behind' it. In short, I didn't appreciate the fictional narratives. I think they added too much to the narrative of Daniel, speculated entirely too much, and, to a certain degree, detracted from the narrative of the Book of Daniel.

The Book of Daniel does not need a fictional narrative to help explain its point, to make its point, or to point to its point. Then again, perhaps as justification for writing another book on Daniel this fictional narrative was necessary. I think it could have been eliminated and the book cut from nearly 400 pages, down to about 250 and the substance could have been deeper and better. As it is, however, the fictional narrative is, frankly, out of place. I didn't appreciate it at any level.

With that said, I'm a little uncertain my take on this book. On the one hand, Jeremiah starts out exactly where I would have started: "Daniel 1:2 introduces us to the theme of the entire book: the sovereignty of God" (13). I think this is dead on and correct and throughout the book he touches upon this very point and, at times, does so well for example, "May we live lives of astonishment over how God has broken into human history for our benefit–to give us a future and a hope that is absolutely certain" (219). On the other hand, the book delves into the nether regions of millenial, Antichrist, and physical Israel theology that does nothing to inspire hope or courage and everything to drain me of vitality and strength. It's my opinion that the theological perspective under-girding the majority of this book is misguided and as much fictional as the Fictional Narratives. An example should suffice to make my point. 

In chapter 10, The Herald, Jeremiah quotes from Clarence Larkin (1850-1924). Here's the quote:

Daniel's seventieth week (Daniel 9:24-27), Jesus' Olivet Discourse (Matthew 24), and John's seals, trumpets, and vials (Revelation 6:1-18:24) cover the same period, and are Jewish and have no reference to the Christian Church. (257)

I simply cannot comprehend how a respected preacher can quote something so unbelievably wrong with a straight face. But this is the kind of result one gets when a theological system is the lens through which one reads the Bible. There is so much emphasis on the trees in this book that, despite the good beginnings, the forest missed almost entirely. How one can account for saying that three lengthy, significant portions of the Holy Writ have no bearing on the church is stunning. I suppose we may as well excise those portions from our Bibles and throw them away. But here's the point: in order for Millenial theology to work, that is exactly what one must do to Scripture. I don't think I'm the only one who sees the significant problem this creates.

Here's another problem I had with the book. I took a fairly long look at the the Notes section of the book. Considering the type of book this is, and who it is intended for, the notes are fairly detailed and I appreciate that very much. But I also take a look at who is being noted, what works are being quoted, and when the works quoted were written. Aside from Jermiah's own works and a couple of other non-specific titles, the works the author cites as authorities on the Book of Daniel range from Calvin's 1853 commentary to Stortz's 2004 Preaching the Word contribution. Along the way there are citations from 1879 (Seiss), Larkin (1929), Keil (1877), Scofield (1945), Anderson (1909), and others. This is 2015. Are we as readers really supposed to take seriously a book whose author has, apparently, not read anything on Daniel since a 2004 publication whose overall Amazon rank is over 800,000? These other men were great. Sure. Their books are classic and probably somewhat important. Yet there are countless works available from reputable scholars in the last ten years that Jeremiah has, apparently, not even bothered to investigate. This was disappointing. (As also was the absence of a bibliography which a work of this sort should have.)

I appreciated that Jeremiah was not afraid to keep this book in its historical context. There is a great deal of emphasis placed on this book as prophecy and I think that is important given how many writers and scholars write off Daniel as pseudo-prophecy (ex eventu). I appreciated that he didn't skimp when it came to his exegesis of the individual chapters of Daniel but that he took the time to explain concepts and other difficult to understand aspects of the book. I didn't always agree with his conclusions, but I appreciated that he took the time to do the work nonetheless.

There are some helpful charts, graphs, and illustrations that add flavor to the book and help the reader visualize a concept from Daniel. I also appreciated that at the end of each chapter Jeremiah added a brief 'Daniel for Today' section to help the reader make some relevant applications. Again, I'm not buying all his applications, but at minimum they get the reader thinking about the content of Daniel. I would appreciate more depth to these applications, but I can read other books to obtain the depth I desire.

Here's the bottom line, and I'm gonna stop because I can go on all day knocking the theology behind this book and nit-picking every little thing I dislike about it, there's nothing in this book that is entirely 'wrong.' For all I know, Jeremiah and the pre/post-millenialists of the church could be correct. I'm not staking my faith to it, but the truth is that they are, to one degree or another, looking for Jesus. And this gives me some courage. For my money, the system is entirely too clean, it all fits together too neatly, and the dates are all too convenient. I don't think Daniel is about giving us a specific historical timeline about this or that. I think Daniel is about pointing us to Jesus whose Kingdom will come upon us when we are not expecting it, will not find its origins from earth, and which will destroy all the other kingdoms that seek to kill, steal, and destroy. At the end of the day, I'm not looking for a timeline. I'm looking for hope. I'm not looking for a particular evil person (e.g. the so-called 'antichrist') or event; I'm looking for the return of Jesus and the Kingdom that takes over the world, the Kingdom not built by human hands, the Kingdom that belongs to the saints of the Most High.

Jeremiah writes:

While we don't know when this world as we know it will come to an end, we know from the prophecies of Daniel and others what will happen: Christ, the invincible Agent, will appear; He will cleanse the world of its evil; and He will set up His perfect Kingdom, which will completely reverse the ravages inflicted on earth by the Fall. (340)

I'm not going to support his methods of dating or the theological overlay that necessarily accompanies this statement, but I will support generally the point he is making: Daniel teaches us about a Kingdom that is coming to earth, whose origins are not here, and whose King is not like the kings of this earth. This I support. And here I agree with the author.

PS-One final aspect of the book that I thoroughly enjoyed and found appropriate was the appendix titled The Agent of Agents. Many books take the approach that the Bible is about 'I' and 'Me'. Agents of Babylon does this a lot too, but I was super impressed with this appendix precisely because the first word of every sentence is 'He', as in YHWH. This was an exquisite addition to the book and one that I wholly embraced. See pages 341-350 for the appendix in question.

3/5 Stars

Important Book & Author Things

  • Where to purchase Agents of Babylon: Amazon ($13.74); Tyndale ($24.99); Christian Book Distributors ($15.49)
  • Author: David Jeremiah
  • On the Web:
  • On Twitter: David Jeremiah
  • Academic Webpage:
  • Editor:
  • Publisher: Tyndale House Publishers
  • Pages: 361
  • Year: 2015
  • Audience: christians, prophecy buffs, preachers, general, millenialists
  • Reading Level: High School
  • Disclaimer: I was provided an advance reader's copy courtesy of  Tyndale Publishing's Tyndale Blog Network blog program in exchange for my fair and unbiased review.

 

Lazarus-Awakening-set325About the time I finished reading Lazarus Awakening, I also finished The King Jesus Gospel: The Original Good News Revisited by Scott McKnight. In his book, McKnight argues that part of the problem with the Gospel today is that we, Christians, do not really know what to do with the story because we do not really understand what the story is about in the first place. He argues that the Gospel is "all about the Story of Israel coming to its resolution in the Story of Jesus and our letting that story become our story" (Kindle, 153). He goes on to write: "There is one and only one way to become People of the Story of Jesus: we need to soak ourselves in the Story of Jesus by reading, pondering, digesting, and mulling over in our heads and hearts the Four Gospels. Genuine soaking in this story always leads to the Story of Israel because it is only in that story that the Story of Jesus makes sense" (Kindle, 153, his emphasis).

He is, of course, correct. We become who we are meant to become when we know Jesus–not when we fluff our way towards warm, fuzzy feelings.

When I was a mere twenty-two years of age, I was ordained into Christian ministry. I accepted the charge given me by the elders of my home church preach the Gospel wherever I went and to be welcomed by the church. I chose for my preaching text that evening the passage from John 11 upon which this book is constructed. I recall that sermon very well because I chose John 11 as an allegory for my own personal resurrection from several teenage defeats and struggles and conflicts. I preached it nearly exactly the way Joanna Weaver has constructed her book from being in a stuck place to coming out of the tomb to leaving our graveclothes behind. It was a tightly constructed sermon worthy of my twenty-two years of age. And it very well may be the worst sermon I ever preached precisely because I'm not sure I really understood preaching at that time let alone Jesus.

To this day, I am embarrassed by that sermon.

I think every person is going to have to decide for themselves if they think Weaver handled the text of John's Gospel in an appropriate manner. I have not read the main text, only the study guide, but if the study guide mirrors the main text, then there are likely serious exegetical and theological issues in the book. Here's how the Study Guide begins: "The story of Lazarus shouts hope to our anxious hearts: 'You are loved. You are accepted.'….So are you ready, my friend? It's time to learn what it means to truly live" (1, her emphasis). But you see all the emphasis in this opening salvo is focused on 'me.' (I was also left mouth agape after reading pages 20-21 where every passage of Scripture is redirected to talk about 'I'.

  • Do you ever feel stuck…
  • As though you have one foot in a new life…..
  • Do you struggle to believe that God could love you….
  • I know I have…
  • You are loved…
  • You are accepted…
  • We can cry out to our Savior…

And there is so much more…so many more first person personal pronouns…it's so overwhelming. I'm not denying that any of these things are true. They are. Yes, we are loved. Yes, we are accepted. Yes, we can cry out to God. Yes. Yes. Yes.

But John 11 is not the place to make those points. John 11 doesn't make those points. John 11 may as well be a fairy tale if these are the points we can gather or make after reading the story of Jesus' actions in that chapter–the chapter where his emotional roller coaster is painful to watch (he loves, he gets angry, he weeps, he resolves, he is troubled–all of this because someone died), the chapter where he gives an advance sign of Who he is and What he is about and Why he was there in the first place. The story of John 11 really isn't about us or, for that matter, Lazarus. It's about Jesus the one who came to complete Israel's story, the one who came not just to put a stopper in death, but to completely unravel and demolish it–as previewed by his demonstration at Lazarus' tomb.

From my perspective, Weaver did not handle the text appropriately; furthermore, I think it matters if authors do or do not. I have grown weary in my middle years on earth of what passes for Bible Study materials in our churches. I have grown weary of what is passed off by publishing houses as worthy of our money and time. I have grown weary of authors who take the Scripture and make it little more that a christianized version of Stephen Covey or Tony Robins. Seriously.

That's my take on the substance of the book: It's deplorable. If you need to feel good about yourself, fine, do so. But please read Scripture carefully, in context, and try hard not to make outrageous points about it from your specious exegetical methods.

As far as it goes, however, I'm sure there's nothing about the book that will cause anyone harm. It's a fairly fluffy study guide book featuring eight weeks' worth of study. There are places for prayer requests, homework, memory verses, 'Israel Moments' (coordinated with the DVD), and so much more. I'm sure it will all be helpful to someone. It just wasn't for me. I simply cannot envision a scenario where I would use this material to teach a small group or my Bible school class on Sundays.

The DVD packaging is nice. One box contains three DVDs. Each disc contains 2-3 lessons and 2-3 'Israel Moments.' I didn't care for the DVDs any more than I cared for the Study Guide. I had a lot of trouble making a connection with the host for some reason. This is simply a package that didn't work for me at any level–mostly for the reasons I stated above concerning Scripture.

I'll give this program 2 stars and I'm probably stretching to get there. I think we are right to study the Bible. I think there might be a place for such esteem building programs. I'm not sold entirely and as I get older and more widely read I find myself bored with all the feel good finding yourself in God's heart kind of teaching. I want Jesus. I want to hear his story. I want to hear what he did and how The story finds completion in Jesus. I want to know how the story of Lazarus advances God's promises to Israel and, by extension, to us. I want to know more about Jesus. I know enough about myself. What I really want to know is Jesus because I think if I know Him and know Him deeper, well, then I will, like John, decrease and Messiah will increase.

Seems to me that should be a lofty goal considering Jesus, who being God in very nature, didn't consider it but humbled himself, taking on flesh. I want to know Him. I don't need esteem. I need Jesus.

2/5 Stars 

Important Book & Author Things

  • Where to purchase Lazarus Awakening Study Guide and DVD Combo Amazon ($27.96); Waterbrook Multnomah ($39.99)
  • Author: Joanna Weaver
  • On the Web: Lazarus Awakening
  • On Twitter:
  • Academic Webpage:
  • Editor:
  • Publisher: Waterbrook
  • Pages: 142
  • Year: 2015
  • Audience: small groups, women
  • Reading Level: High School
  • Disclaimer: I was provided an advance reader's copy courtesy of  Waterbrook's Blogging for Books blog program in exchange for my fair and unbiased review.

 

FellowshipDifferentsI only recently jumped on the Scot McKnight bandwagon. This year, in fact, although I have followed him on Twitter for a while and, if I am not mistaken, reviewed a book he wrote on Fasting a long while ago. I became interested in McKnight's writing when I saw another of his books called The King Jesus Gospel and in his important book Kingdom Conspiracy. I have also seen his name mentioned by NT Wright here and there. I enjoy McKnight's work because I think he has important things to say that more people ought to be listening to. I think when it comes to the Kingdom and the Gospel McKnight is dead on point. Now I'm kind of convinced that he's on the right track when it comes to the local church. I'm sure at some point along this journey he'll go off the wall and disappoint me, but so far, so good. Fingers crossed.

I don't say it too often about authors because there are so few authors that I truly appreciate–whose work truly resonates with my own heart. I say that because so many authors who write books for the church are afraid to get dirty, say the hard things that need to be said, and actually dig deep enough in Scripture to challenge the status quo. I don't find any of that to be true about McKnight. He writes his books like he writes his Twitter feed and blog: straight up and if you don't like it, well? We may not want to listen, but McKnight (among others) is saying something important. It's time for the church to hear what is being said.

But seriously, McKnight's commentary and arguments are nuanced, but not so much that they are misunderstood. I think he writes clearly enough–even if at times he has to repeat himself in order to make his point. Sometimes those of us who read are a bit of a challenge to those who write. We have to listen carefully or we might miss the bigger picture someone is painting.

So these three books of McKnight's I have mentioned so far are, I think, some of the most important books I have read. In truth, I don't think he's saying anything I don't already believe. It just so happens that he is smart and got the book deal and I got to teach special education. As I noted above, McKnight is really only doing what needs to be done–it's kind of revolutionary in a way because maybe if more people start writing books like he is writing, saying the things he is saying, and alerting Christians to what the Bible really says, then maybe, just maybe the church will hear what the Spirit has to say. Lord knows it's not like we actually read what the Bible has to say. Seriously. I say this because I read a lot of books and I see the things being written….and it's kind of…thin. I like McKnight's work because he consistently finds a way to take his readers deep into the Scripture without causing them the sort of palpitations that get their itchy fingers dialing the phone trying to get someone fired for preaching the truth.

So, A Fellowship of Differents. I don't think I disagree with much in the book, but I do have a serious question to ask. McKnight is selling us this idea that the church ought to reflect the culture in which we live. That is, the church ought to be made up of all sorts of people: different cultures, different colors, different tribes, nations, orientations, ethnic backgrounds, and so on and so forth. I don't disagree. We all together make up Israel expanded. Yep. No complaints. In fact, the book of Revelation is keen on this point too: "After this I looked and behold a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes, and peoples, and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb…" (Revelation 7:9)

But how do we make this universal vision of the church a local reality? In fact, is it necessary to do so? Let me give you an example. The church I belong to and worship with is white. Very white. There is one person in the congregation who is African-American–a young girl. She is quite welcome. She is quite active. She is quite happy. My own family has brought her to worship and taken her to dinner and so on. I'm not bragging. But here's my point. The community is small and I don't even know if there are any black families in the community. When I was growing up in that town, there were two such families. My question is this: for all the call to diversify the church, and yes! diversify!, how is a church in a white-washed town supposed to do such a thing? There's not a single personal or theological reason people of color are not among us. It's simple demographics.

I don't understand why it is 'wrong' for a church to resemble the community where it is located. I get the point McKnight is making, but I don't think it's quite as 'easy' to simply remake the church the way he thinks it should be made. Most congregations resemble the neighborhood where they are situated. Mine is no different. Maybe this works itself out in a different way practically so maybe that is his point. Maybe we are simply not practical enough as Christians when it comes to how we relate one denomination to another. Maybe we need a Revelation 7 kind of vision. Maybe this book will help us. Maybe the church is diverse and we need to simply celebrate what we have.

Maybe more of us ought to think and believe that 'we are Christians only, but not the only Christians.' It's just a thought.

Who knows?

McKnight says something I like very early on: "These three principals are a way of saying that local churches matter far more than we often know." (15). Yep. I agree. Which means, as far as I can tell, that more emphasis ought to be placed on the work that local churches do, that more preachers ought to take seriously what they preach, and that more congregations ought to take seriously the things that the Bible says defines the church. So McKnight is right to ask: What is the church supposed to be? And: If the church is what it is supposed to be, what does the Christian life look like? (17). From which I draw the obvious conclusion: Why are there so many preachers on television?

Yep. So, if the local church matters, and these two questions are right, then what is the problem? Well, I suppose you'll have to read the book to find out what McKnight proposes. I have a hard time not recommending his writing. It's accessible and deep. Mostly what I like is that when he handles the Scripture, he doesn't yank a single word from a single verse from a single chapter from a single book and develop an entire theological dogma from it. This book, like what I've read of McKnight in other places, deals with context: literary, historical, and contextual. The reader will not agree with all of McKnight's conclusions. I didn't. But that doesn't mean the conversation isn't stimulating and worth the effort.

I recommend this book because it challenges us to think about the value of the local church and challenges us to keep that church in context and out of context. At the end of the day, this book is an apologetic for loving people because we love God who loves people. It's kind of hard to argue with that logic.

Notes are appended at the end. There is a Scripture index and subject and name index too.

5/5 Stars

Important Book & Author Things

  • Where to purchase A Fellowship of Differents (Amazon: $15.92)
  • Author: Scott McKnight
  • On Twitter: @scotmckight
  • Academic Webpage:
  • Editor:
  • Publisher: Zondervan
  • Pages: 272
  • Year: 2015
  • Audience: preachers, christians, anyone who likes McKnight's work, etc.
  • Reading Level: High School
  • Disclaimer: I was provided an advance reader's copy courtesy of  BookLook Bloggers blog program in exchange for my fair and unbiased review.

41RdixipILL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_This was a really exciting book that I enjoyed immensely. It was well written by two exceptionally intelligent individuals. It is accessible, but not condescending. It is intelligent, but not stuff. It is a science book written for lay-folk like myself who find the mysteries of the universe to be both a source of wonder and a picture of sanity. It all makes sense; it makes no sense.

That's pretty much my takeaway from this book: In truth, we pretty much no nothing about the world in which we live even if we happen to know enough to fill millions of pages with ink and letters and words and sentences. There is a lot we know and perhaps even more that we do not know. At the end of the day, science is an endless journey of discovery which takes us from the gargantuan complexities of galaxies to the uber-minutia of quantum mechanics and biology. Who knows how these things even hold together are what keeps them from imploding or exploding? The book is filled with rampant speculation about such things as the authors note, "…we cannot yet be sure that all of the features we have just described are quantum mechanical." (325).

But isn't it fun to explore, predict, test, and retest?

It kind of makes me wonder every now and then what would become of science and scientists if we ran out of things to investigate? What if there is a world even smaller than the quantum world? What if there is a world larger than the universe? Truth is, we won't know unless we continue to explore–an arduous task that boggles the mind. As I read through this book I often wondered 'how on earth can they do that?' I mean, seriously, the levels of smallness that are being dealt with in this book are quite extraordinary.

I remain unconvinced by their arguments put forth in chapter 7 where the authors dealt with 'quantum genes.' They throw large numbers at the readers like, "The rate of copying errors in DNA replication, what we call mutation, is usually less than one in a billion." (202) But they want us to believe that over the course of 'generations' enough of these mutations collect in an organism to produce something useful in the organism. What I can never figure out is how the organisms survive long enough without the useful something to arrive at the place where the useful something is, well, useful. What I mean is something like this. If all of the sudden the climate on earth changed so dramatically that I needed to grow a horn on my head to survive, but replication errors only occur 1/1,000,000,000, and I need billions of years to complete this replication error in order to survive, then how did I survive long enough without the horn on my head in order for the horn to grow on my head in order for me to survive?

Or, if a robin didn't originally have a 'sense that detects the earth's magnetic field' that helped it 'navigate'–that is, if it needed millions of years to evolve this skill (173), what did it do for all those millions of years when it didn't have this sense? How did it determine it needed this sense? And how did it navigate before it evolved this sense? I confess that these questions perplex me.

Now, if you tell me that organisms change because of their environment then we can have a conversation. But it makes no sense to me for anyone to suggest that there are so few replication errors and yet there are enough that produce what we see. I admire the authors of the book very much for their steadfast hold to something that makes no logical sense whatsoever. I enjoyed the book very much right up to the point where they started flopping around like fish out of water to explain Darwinism in light of quantum mechanics. Maybe sometimes the phenomena we see do not require us to work backwards to a point of origin or necessity. Maybe what we see requires us only to stand slack-jawed in amazement at what is or can be.

At times the authors fall into the error of tautology. For example, in the same chapter 7 on Quantum Genes, the authors are discussing Hugo de Vries and his observations concerning the evening primrose and how one version of this plant was 'taller' and had 'oval-shaped petals rather than the familiar heart-shaped petals.' To this earth shattering observation, the authors write, "He recognized this flower as a 'mutant'; and, more important, he showed that the mutant traits were passed on to the plant's progeny, so they were inherited." (212). Well, of course the 'mutant' plant passed on 'mutated genes'; what else could it pass on to its progeny? And let's be honest, this really doesn't demonstrate anything other than that it was a mutated plant and that it passed on mutated genes. There's no explanation of why it was mutated, what factors led to the mutation, what purpose the mutation might have served, and so on. Maybe a bee just got it wrong when it was pollinating the plant.

This is an exciting book except where it dips into the absurd world of Darwinian evolution–which was inevitable. I find the book to be somewhat whimsical and joyful. They weren't cracking back on people who happen to have philosophical, theological, or logical disagreements with their conclusions. They admit that much of what they are suggesting is speculation and that a lot more research is necessary to prove their ideas. The authors seemed to genuinely amazed by what they were writing about and that made the book a lot of fun to read–that is, I often marked in the margins that something they wrote or discovered was simply 'magnificent.' Like when they talk about robins or clown fish or just life: "Life is remarkable" (25). Yes. It is.

The book is filled with wonderful illustrations and a few pictures. The style of writing is engaging. I really enjoyed this book a lot and I am hopeful that more books concerning quantum biology will be written in the future–books for people like me who enjoy reading and learning about the discoveries scientists and everyday people make about this great planet where we live.

Finally, the book was well researched. Part of what I enjoyed most was how each chapter slowly uncovered a discovery by tracing its history from this scientist to that scientist and all the way to our current day. This was excellent and a lot of the names mentioned are familiar even if a few of them are somewhat obscure. Notes are appended at the end and there is a helpful, lengthy index for readers who wish to do follow-up on the author's sources.

This is an excellent book. I recommend it for those interested in quantum mechanics/biology and for those who simply enjoy delighting in the wonders of this earth. In some ways, this book will cause the reader never to look at life the same way again. Maybe this is a good thing.

May your wonder never cease.

5/5 Stars

Important Book & Author Things

The_Martian_2014This will not be a normal review full of all sorts of technical considerations and the like. I simply wanted to take a few minutes of space (haha) to note that a) I read this book and b) I enjoyed it immensely. I enjoy the science fiction genre, but I confess it's been a while since I have read science fiction. I think the last time I did was when I read C.S. Lewis' Space Trilogy a seriously long while back.

Then one day I was watching something, maybe a ball game, and I saw an advertisement for a movie coming out soon called The Martian staring Matt Damon. Well, I like Matt Damon's overall body of work and I saw Ridley Scott had something to do with it and I noted that I would definitely be seeing the movie. A few days later, I was scrolling through my Twitter feed and this book showed up as a Kindle deal. Since I'm cheap like that, I had no problem dishing out the $2.00 or $3.00 for the Kindle version of the book. And then I started reading.

And I loved it. Love. Love. Loved it. It was a thoroughly enjoyable book. I thought it was a bit over the top when it came to the language (there were a lot of f-bombs, and it was vulgar at times) but I was able to overcome those issues and enjoy a story. Kind of reminded me a lot of the movie Castaway, but only in theme. Obviously life on Mars is a wee bit different than life on an island on earth. The science behind the book was a lot of fun to navigate. I was able to understand most of it, but there were times when I felt it wasn't necessary to understand everything that was going on scientifically in order to appreciate the story itself.

The story has a nice flow to it even if the ending seem to be a wee bit predictable. I mean, he had a 50-50 chance, but since I was reading the story I wasn't too worried about the main character not surviving.

Obviously I am a bit late to the game on this book hence the short review. Nevertheless, I wanted those who do read this to know that I thought it was a great story and worth the read.

ThrivingI love when a book just sort of 'shows up' and it has immediate relevance to my life or ministry. Such was the case with Thriving in Babylon. I was searching through the David C Cook offerings on NetGalley and this book just appeared…I'm fairly certain I heard the sound of 'ahhh' sung by angels as a halo of gold surround the book. Needless to say I was happy to see the book, a book, any book focused on the Book of Daniel.

I have been engaged in serious study of the book of Daniel since sometime in 2014 as I prepared myself to teach an undergraduate level course on the book at a small Bible College located near my home in the Fall of 2015. I mean it must be providence because this is the fourth book on Daniel I have managed to get for review from publishers in the last year (and in fact, I just received a fifth one in the mail today from another publisher). All of the books have had unique perspectives on the Book of Daniel and have lent their insight to me as I sought to understand Daniel.

It does make me wonder though why there is currently so much popular and scholarly level interest in the Book of Daniel–so much interest that one noted author even published a lifestyle book based on something he read in Daniel. It's curious how it seems that perhaps people are slowly beginning to realize that all our American dreams are not quite the stuff that being a disciple of Jesus is made of. Or maybe what people are seeing is that the time is ripe, the axe is at the root, the signs are converging and coalescing, and maybe we imagine we hear just the faintest hint of a trumpet blast being carried by the wind.

This book started out strong with a heavy focus on the Book of Daniel and I was rolling along with Osborne nicely. He is correct: Daniel is neither an adventure story nor a prophecy manual. Where he kind of lost me is when he stated what he does think the main point of Daniel's book is: "When it comes to the book of Daniel, his incredible example of how to live and thrive in the most godless of environments is the main lesson we don't want to miss. It's a template that's particularly relevant today" (Location 128). Unfortunately, this kind of made me yawn a bit because I started sensing where the book was going–a mere manual for living, something the church does not need. Fact is, if we read the Book of Daniel as a book of mere examples for living, however incredible, encouraging, and faithful they may be, then we may as well read it as an adventure story and we probably miss the bigger story he is telling us about ultimate redemption of the world, of His saints, of his Son, and of a victory that even death cannot prevent. 

A deeper look at Daniel reveals a deeply theological story, one that is entirely focused on the sovereignty of God over the nations and of how, despite the terribly negative outward appearance of things in this world, God will rescue and redeem his exiles from Babylon, establish his Messianic Kingdom by uprooting, supplanting, subverting, and at times destroying the kingdoms of earth, and establish his Son and People as the rightful heirs and rulers of the kingdoms of earth.

Somewhere in this, yes, we are called to live and thrive. Clearly the prophet Jeremiah, one of the books Daniel read, told the exiles that they should settle down, build houses, raise families, live, and seek the welfare of the city where they were confined, but I doubt Jeremiah did so without first giving those people a picture of the great God who led them there in the first place. I doubt that living and thriving are the main focus of the book–or of any book of the Bible for that matter. I'm not saying they are absent; I am saying they are the trees we see when we take our eyes off the forest. 

I absolutely agree that we live in a world of chaos. I agree that for all intents and purposes our times are no different than those of Daniel and that Christians are, by and large, living in the shadow and confines of Babylon. I disagree that we are going to change this world simply by displaying hope, humility, and wisdom–the three ideas explored in the book. To me, however, this sounds like a convenient outline–kind of preacherly (if that's a word). Needless to say, however well he may find these ideas in the Book of Daniel, I was fairly disappointed that this was the route he chose to go. It's not that anything he says in the book is wrong or that it cannot be found in the book of Daniel. It's just that this is not the point of Daniel's book and, therefore, I think Thriving in Babylon was wanting for something more.

So let me wrap up by noting a couple of things that did resonate with me and ultimately were good constructs–even if I think the foundation upon which they were built was a bit beyond the blueprint. First, I agree that '[F]rom the first page to the last, Daniel clearly saw God's hand in everything that happened' (Location 203). I agree. This is laid out for the readers in Daniel chapter 1 and it carries all through the book. He goes on to note that 'God is in control of who is in control' (Location 222). Here I think Osborne nails it and, to this point, he is correct: upon this understanding of God we can indeed thrive in Babylon. I only wish he had explored his point a little more with respect to how Christians respond to the the kings of this world. Daniel is a decidedly political book and I think it needed to be explored, and could have been even at this popular level.

Second, he brings out some import and valid points about suffering in this world and our response to it. Key among his points is this: 'Those who walk away from God in anger and disillusionment in the midst of their suffering never do so because their test was too hard. They do so because their faith was not genuine' (Location 541). Whatever else I may have written, I want to be clear that Osborne has written a good book with much worth lauding. His points about our suffering as Christians in the midst of the Babylonian shadow are important and timely. We do well to listen. Yet we also do well to remember that there is no resurrection needed for those who remain alive. The saints of God will suffer at the hands of kings. Perhaps this timely message needed to be explored a little more.

My main disappointment with this book is that I don't think Osborne handled the Book of Daniel very well. Frankly, it was a huge disappointment. At times, it was like he utterly forgot he was even taking us through the book at all. Besides this, as noted above, I think he failed to get to the heart of what Daniel is teaching us. I get that the book is not designed to be a thorough exposition of Daniel and in this Osborne succeeds. The book of Daniel is a complex book and the character of Daniel–one of only two characters who 'survive' the entire book from start to finished–is a complex character. He has good days and bad days. He spends a lot of time sick due to the visions he has. He has to make difficult choices at times and seems at times to be all about his own self-preservation. Sometimes he doesn't tell the whole truth when interpreting visions and dreams. At times he us utterly brilliant and at other times he seems confounded. Sometimes he appears to compromise a bit and other times he is utterly bold and forthright. It is, therefore, difficult to make Daniel the sort of hero I think Osborne wants him to be.

Daniel is complex and I wish that complexity had been explored with a little more nuance than Osborne did. Again, it's not that anything Osborne said was wrong or out of place. It's just that Daniel is not so black and white as he leads us to believe.

It's a good read for the most part and I didn't disagree with all that much. He says a lot of important and timely things. There are some surprisingly fresh anecdotes and I like that he doesn't fall back on the the so-called standard sermon illustrations–oh thank God for that! I found the book to be honest and readable; accessible and, at times, challenging. It has plenty of Scripture references quoted and/or alluded to (notes are at the end of each chapter.) I also found the book a bit unbalanced. Chapters 1-4 talk about 'Daniel's Story'; Chapters 5-7** discuss 'Prepared for Battle'. He discuss all these things before diving into his thoughts about hope, humility, and wisdom. Chapters 8-13 are 'Hope'; 14-16, 'Humility'; 17-20', 'Wisdom'. It's slightly unbalanced as you can see, it's a small thing to be sure, but it bothered me.

One last thing. Daniel's book warns us over and over again of putting our hope in the kings who derive their position and authority 'out of the earth' or 'out of the sea' (see Daniel 7). Christians in America are particularly susceptible to this scheme of the devil–the one where he tries to convince us that our hope is found in the next great ministry or the next great up and coming politician. We are continually told about how important it is to vote for a particular political party or a particular political candidate. Sometimes we are even told that Daniel himself is a fine example of why Christians ought to be involved in the political process. At one point Osborne makes an utterly brilliant point when addressing this scheme: "[Satan] is still at it. Today, he's convinced many of us to replace our passionate hope in Jesus with a passionate hope in politics or the latest ministry on steroids. It's taken our eyes off Jesus and put our hope in that which can't deliver" (location 1334). Here I think he nails it because it is here, at this point, that I think the point of the Book of Daniel is clearly in view.

What the church needs is a formidable and robust picture of a great God who will wreck the systems born in this world, born of this world, born from this world, and who will set up his own kingdom which is 'not of this world' (Daniel 2; cf. John 18). Daniel gives us this vision–as a prophet should. I find that looking at mere examples of mere humanity is not enough to strengthen us in our current need. This is why, for example, when John the Revelator was writing to the seven churches in province of Asia who were muddled in persecution and complacency, he began not with a robust picture of an exemplary human being but with a picture of the cosmic Jesus who is the Alpha and the Omega. In short, I think the focus on Daniel as a person is misplaced.

So I'm a little disappointed with this book, but not entirely. There are times when Osborne gets Daniel brilliantly and other times when he falls down. It's a preacher thing to narrow down a book to a set of memorable ideas. In this case, hope, humility, and wisdom are the memorable ideas he wants us to remember. I think we would have been better served if he had asked us to remember that it is God's faithfulness to his people, to his own plans for this world, not his people's mere example, that is why and how and for what we thrive and survive and ultimately own this world and how he ultimately conquers Babylon.

4/5 Stars

**I would make one correction to the book. In chapter 7, he begins with an illustration of living near Camp Pendleton, a US Marine Corps recruit depot in San Diego, California. In paragraph 2, he refers to those who train recruits as 'drill sergeants.' This would be fine if he were talking about Army recruits, but those who train Marines are called Drill Instructors. Trust me when I say this is a big deal to Marines. It should be addressed in future editions of the book.

Important Book & Author Things

  • Where to purchase Thriving in Babylon (Amazon: Kindle $9.28 ) Christian Book Distributors (Paperback $9.99) David C Cook (Trade-Paperback $15.99)
  • Author: Larry Osborne
  • Larry Osborn on Twitter
  • Academic Webpage:
  • Editor:
  • Publisher: David C Cook
  • Pages: 224
  • Year: 2015
  • Audience: Mostly Christians, but others too (maybe)
  • Reading Level: High School
  • Disclaimer: I was provided an advance reader's copy courtesy of David C Cook via NetGalley.

**All page locations are relative at this point because I'm using an uncorrected proof. Pages should be checked against the final publication for accuracy.

Cover65208-mediumBack in the day when I was still invited to stand in the pulpit each week and preach, I once had a crazy idea after reading a book by Eugene Peterson. Actually, Peterson's book began sparking little fires in me that I simply could not control. He eventually wrote five volumes in a series of spiritual theologies, but it was that first book, Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places that wrecked me. The crazy idea was that I should start sharing with my congregation this newly found discovery that Christianity was not about 'me.' I still remember the sermon series because it came out of me around the time The Purpose Driven Life was all the rage. My series was called The Crucifixion Driven Life.

Then I took a seminary class called Doctrine of Grace at Cincinnati Christian University (hosted by a preacher named Jack Cottrell) which served as another fire that eventually, completely undid me. Along the way I met a preacher/author named Tom Wright, another named Tim Keller, and still another named Brennan Manning. David Crowder*Band released A Collision and redefined (at least for me) Christian music.  Then I read a book by a now deceased blogger named Michael Spencer (Mere Churchianity) and heard a sermon by an obscure preacher named Max Lucado who called his sermon It's not about Me, It's not about Now. (Of everything I have heard and read by Max Lucado that sermon remains the most powerful and convicting I ever participated in. It was truly a watershed moment in my faith. He also wrote a book with a similar title, which I read. But even the book paled in comparison to the sermon he preached.) I don't even have the space to tell you about what happened when I was introduced to a turn of last century theologian named Peter Taylor Forsyth. 

So many books…so many steps….so many sermons…

It took several years of reading and listening to these sermons and allowing these radical ideas to flood my own sermons for me to get fired from the church where I was preaching at the time. OK. I'll be fair. I 'resigned.' And it's been six long years that I have been in the wilderness learning about what Kyle Idleman crammed into 224 pages. And what is worse, I'm not sure God is done ending me just yet. Truth is, we probably don't 'end ourselves' as much as when we submit ourselves to Jesus he undoes us for us. Sometimes the submitting isn't done so willingly either. We may not ask for it. I'm certain it will be (or is) unpleasant (for the most part). And I'm certain it will not be a finished task until after Jesus has returned to claim his own and to set things to rights. Idleman wrote:

Even though most of us can point to a significant event like the ones above, getting to the end of me is not just one moment in life. Reaching the end of me is a daily journey I must make because it's where Jesus shows up and my real life in him begins. (location 49**)

I'm not sure how Idleman crammed so much into 224 pages. I mean, it's taken me more than six years to get where I am and I know that I could fill more than 224 pages, but I like writing and I probably wouldn't work well with an editor. Nevertheless, here I am. Once again I heard the voice of God whispering the truth to my heart and it hurts my ears and demolishes my pride and almost drives me to hopeful despair. Jesus is not easy. Following him is less so. So if John the baptizer 'must become less', how much more must we?

I have not heard these things taught in any of the churches that I have been to in the last six years or so since I stopped preaching and became a special education teacher in a public school. Well, maybe I heard some of it in the Anglican church we attended for a while, but the truth is that when I started thinking deeply about what real faith was like and started to express those thoughts in the pulpit, the people in the pew became increasingly uncomfortable. It was palpable. Truth is, it's just not popular, frankly, to tell the truth about what it means to truly follow Jesus. I mean we all utter things like 'Jesus said to take up our cross, deny ourselves, and follow him.' Yes, we do. But in America that scarcely has the subversiveness that Jesus attached to it. In America we bear crosses of cranky neighbors, Facebook debates with 'liberals' who deny young earth creationism, or long slogs to boring jobs. Idleman brings this back to his readers: "I want to warn you now–so much of Jesus' teachings seem oppositional to what we have come to accept. And the life He invites us to is not just countercultural, it's counterintuitive. More often than not it flies in the face of what feels right" (location 64).

I seriously do not understand how the preacher at a so-called megachurch can say things like this and still have a pulpit to climb into every week. But he said it. And I think he is right. It all seems so backwards to me at times and yet there's this nagging in my brain and heart that tells me he is correct. "Embrace the paradox," he writes, "Brokenness is the way to wholeness." When I read things like this I hear the echoes of those I have read before: Manning, David Wells, Michael Spencer, Eugene Peterson, Lucado, Crowder, Keller, Mullins, Tolkien, Lewis, Carson, Wright, Willimon, Hauerwas, Buchanan, Rowling, and so many, many more. There are so many voices screaming this in their books and pulpits and records and blogs–and yet…here we are…running over the same old ground…retracing our steps to the same old fears and misconceptions about Jesus and what it means to be his disciple. Here in America.

That phrase, 'brokenness is the way to wholeness,' is alone worth the price of the book. I know it's only a retread of something Jesus said, but I don't care. Say it again. Print 224 pages with nothing but that on each page and I'll buy the book because I have lived it–as have many others who will also testify to it's veracity. I cannot explain it or even wrap my head around it. But I see how God in his righteousness has been breaking this chain that bound me–bound me to a pulpit, bound me to an idea, bound me to a people and how he has taken that brokenness and retro-fit me with something better than pulpits, projects, and people. Grace. That's all. Just grace. It means coming to the end of me and realizing that God through Jesus loves me more than I imagined he ever could or would. It means truly living the Resurrection Driven Life (another series of sermons I preached back in the day.)

Even more importantly though is that in coming to the end of me I come to the beginning of others. I've been teaching special education students for 4.5 years now and every day I have to get out of the way and see them. When I was all up in my own business, there was no room for others–even though I served in a hundred different ways. I can honestly question my motives. My students force me each day to end myself. "This is the death we must die. Not a one-time death. Not a partial death. It's a daily dying. And every time I come to the end of me I discover what I deeply wanted all along–real and abundant life in Christ." (Location 2037). In my church of six members, located in a self-contained special education classroom in a public school, I work with emotionally and behaviorally disabled children. Every day they remind me to close the book on myself, to lose myself, to die to myself. They remind me of what it truly means to be the least and the last; the overlooked and forgotten, tucked away safely from the general population where we won't be a problem. Every day these six show me Jesus.

Well, I could go on quoting from the book and preaching this sermon, but I think at this point it's enough to say that I love this book. I like that Idleman, given where he is and what he does, has stayed humble. In many books I read like this, the authors come across somewhat pretentious and condescending. Not so with Idleman. It's a testimony to the leadership in his church, his upbringing, and his training that he has remained in touch with earth. This is what impresses me about this book. I get not a single hint of arrogance or condescension. This book reads like it was written by a fella who has walked with Jesus. His stories are self-deprecating when he tells them, but in truth he doesn't tell a lot of stories about himself–which I appreciate–and instead he tells stories about Jesus. I like this a lot. Too many authors write autobiographies and call them books about Jesus. This book is truly a book about Jesus.

My point is that Idleman seems to think there is something more important for his readers to read than stories about his own faith-prowess or preaching super-skills. He seems to have this idea that it is Jesus who saves and loves and who models for us what being a disciple looks like. So in wonderful fashion, he wrote a book about the end of himself by telling us about Jesus. And I'm sure Kyle Idleman would tell us that a story about Jesus is far more interesting than a story about himself.

This is a book you should buy and read. And then read again. And then buy for someone so they can read it.

5/5 Stars

Important Book & Author Things

  • Where to purchase or pre-order (on sale October 1, 2015) The End of Me (Amazon: Kindle) Christian Book Distributors (Paperback) David C Cook (Paperback)
  • Author: Kyle Idleman
  • Kyle Idleman on Twitter
  • Academic Webpage:
  • Editor:
  • Publisher: David C Cook
  • Pages: 224
  • Year: 2015
  • Audience: Mostly Christians, but others too (maybe)
  • Reading Level: High School
  • Disclaimer: I was provided an advance reader's copy courtesy of David C Cook via NetGalley.

**All page locations are relative at this point because I'm using an uncorrected proof. Pages should be checked against the final publication for accuracy.

123JohnI remember when I was younger, a mere twenty-something going off to Bible college in the 'big city'–full of small town conservative enthusiasm. I was from a small-town, a little right of right conservative church of Christ/Christian Church. We, of course, do not 'permit' women to have positions of 'authority' or to 'teach men' or to be 'elders' or, for the most part, 'deaconesses.' Imagine my surprise when I went off to college, in the denomination, and in one of my first classes, on Genesis, I was asked to read a commentary by Joyce Baldwin. I still remember, to my shame, speaking of her in a rather condescending way. (Ironically, I'm now teaching part-time at a small Bible college and using Baldwin's commentary on Daniel for the students' textbook. Good times.) I had much to learn about who God uses to teach ignorant people like myself. It's funny, now that I think about it, how much I have had to learn.

Well, here I am many years removed from Bible college. I have moved back to my hometown after 25 some years away and still not much has changed–except me. I have spent considerable time–even this summer–reading a number of books written by female authors and I have been, to a large degree, disappointed. There always seems to be an agenda of some sort or other instead of a simple commentary on what is written. (Oftentimes I find that commentators, whether male or female, tend to read issues back into the commentary so that even though the Biblical author had absolutely no idea such and such was a problem, low and behold, our modern commentator has corrected the biblical author or simply pointed out how, through some exegetical gymnastics, he actually was talking about such and such.) I don't bring this up for no reason. On the contrary, I have learned to appreciate good scholarship regardless of whether its a man or woman writing and in the case of this particular commentary, I am simply happy to have read it because it is just an outstanding, excellently written commentary on the letters of John.

I don't want to hide the fact that I love that Karen Jobes wrote this book. I believe that the church needs to have more female academics writing commentaries and engaging in the difficult work of exegesis. It is my hope that authors/scholars like Karen Jobes will be role models for young girls who are considering Biblical scholarship for a career. I realize it's hard to say that without coming across as a complete and utter chauvinist but here's my point: what I look for in a commentary is a serious scholarship–working with the text, digging deep into the Greek, engaging the tough issues that the text highlights and often what I get is something that is less than serious. I look for an author who wrestles mightily with the text and stays humble before it. I found such an author in this commentary. Maybe I've been out of the loop for too long, but I am glad that the typically male dominated world of New Testament scholarship has authors and scholars like Karen Jobes writing books and explaining the Scripture to us. My life is enriched after having read this book. I recently read and reviewed a book full of sermons. One of the editors was a woman, but sadly there was not one contribution in the entire book by a female preacher. It was a glaring and significant failure of the book.

There's no pretense to this commentary. Jobes alerts the ready in the preface what her positions are with respect to her hermeneutical lens. Basic to this lens is the a priori devotion to the assumption of authorship: whoever wrote the letters we call 'John' also wrote the Gospel we call 'John' (or was at least a 'close associate.') With this said, she goes on to assert that "while the letters must be allowed their own voice, they cannot be properly understood without reference to John's Gospel as the interpretive framework for the metaphors, images, and theology common to both" (15). What follows, then, is a commentary that helps us see and make these connections, at a number of different levels and ways, and it is thus extremely helpful to have the Gospel open at the same time as the commentary. This, in my opinion, is one of the stronger aspects of this commentary because I think too many are willing to divorce the letters from the Gospel.

The commentary is arranged in a convenient manner following what seems to be a fairly standard format. The introduction, which covers all three letters, discusses briefly the significance of the letters, authorship and provenance, historical situation and the so-called 'polemical view' of the letters. In this regard, Jobes makes an important point, that I happen to agree with which is to focus the discussion of these letters based on the author's own statements of why he wrote. Again, this goes to my earlier point that too many times authors bring to the text their own ideas and try to force them to make sense. Jobes' point is this: "His concern was to shepherd those in his spiritual care to remain within the bounds of orthodoxy rather than to directly address the heresy(-ies) that disrupted the church(es); that makes it difficult to reconstruct with specificity the problems being addressed" (25). She notes how this 'frees the interpreter' to focus on John's definition of 'orthodoxy' which necessarily and implicitly 'argues against' many different heresies from then and now. It seems so much easier to do things this way.

I mean this with no hint of sarcasm at all, but imagine that! A commentary that is interested in reading and commenting on what is in the text instead of trying to reconstruct all sorts of things that are not there or that we have imagined are there. This is brilliant and I applaud Jobes for taking such a revolutionary and radical step in exegetical sanity.

There is a lengthy section on the relationship between the letters and John's Gospel and a nice chart showing verbal parallels. Other aspects of the introduction include the date and relationship between the three letters, the place of the letters in the chronology of New Testament history, and canonicity. There is a lengthy bibliography after the introduction just before Jobes engages in a separate introduction for 1 John. (Each letter receives its own introduction.)

The individual introductions will provide more specific details such as genre, purpose, structure, and and outline. There are a couple of different outlines including an exegetical outline. There's also a fresh translation of the text–all of this before we finally arrive at the explanation of the text.

Up to this point in the book, the text has been a one column affair. For some reason I am unable to discern, the book turns to a two column approach when we get to the explanation of the text part and then reverts back to a one column format when we get to the Theological reflections at the end of each section of verses being discussed. I suppose maybe it had something to do with space concerns, but I'm not sure. It's not a terrible thing, but I didn't particularly care for it. The explanation is based wholly on the Greek text and it is particular. Nothing escapes Jobes and she is willing to make as many literary and verbal connections as the author gives us ("The Johannine corpus is well known for its abundant wordplays and double entendres.." (47)). It should come as no surprise to anyone reading this commentary that the first four verses of 1 John are particularly infused with meaning and depth and that Jobes takes us as far as the text can take us.

The book is heavily footnoted–which is greatly appreciated–and Jobes is well acquainted with all the important literature, developments, and authors on the subject of John's letters in particular and literature in general. She doesn't skirt controversial issues or try to explain them away, but engages them and makes her case for each point of view she supports. In other words, this is a thorough work–as one might expect from the title.

There are also blocked out sections where the author goes 'in depth' and discusses a 'side-issue' such as whether or not we should use the word 'Messiah' or 'Christ' when talking about Jesus or 'truth' in John's letters. Finally, each section includes a 'theology in application' section where she talks about the aforementioned 'explanation of the text' in practical terms.

I love the section where Jobes translates the Greek text for the reader. It's in a text box and is analytical in nature or, maybe the old fashioned way is to say that the sentences are somewhat diagrammed so that each aspect of translation is also somewhat interpreted. So, for example, 1 John 2:1-6, verse 1 is: 1a (address: my little children) b (assertion: these things I write to you) c (purpose: so that you will not sin). This is a most helpful analysis because it opens up our understanding of the text insofar as we can 'see' it before us–even if there may be some subjectivity involved. I think this will be especially helpful for the reader who is new to Greek or maybe someone who just wants to visualize it without doing the work for themselves. It is a bit interpretive, so as with all things, one really should do their own analysis.

At the end of the book, there is a section called: The Theology of John's Letters. Here the author explores the significant contribution these letters make to our understanding of New Testament Christianity: "The preeminent theological point of John's letters is consistent with the overarching message of the NT in general: that Jesus Christ, God's Son, has come from God the Father to die as the atoning sacrifice for sin, and on the basis of his self-sacrifice, to create for God a new covenant people who will both know him and enjoy eternal life with him" (340). I might quibble a bit with that wording because it sounds way too neo-Reformed for my taste, but Jobes does make her case in this work for her perspective and point of view. At best, she is keeping the meta-narrative in mind as she writes; at worst, she snaps it off just a bit too soon (I think there's more to it than Jesus merely being the 'atoning sacrifice for sin'; that's a big part of it, but there's certainly more. Jobes may or may not agree and it may or may not be a part of 1 John.)

There's a substantial Scripture index, Apocrypha index, subject index, and author index at the very end–substantial enough that whoever wrote it might have been awarded co-authorship of the book! But it is worth the effort to put these appendices together and I am, personally grateful for their inclusion.

I think the same thing can be said of most commentaries: there are things you will agree with the author upon and things you will not. When it's all said and done, I don't think any commentary is written by an author with the expectation that there will be a unanimous voice raised in agreement. Authors write these books to address issues and raise questions that are close to their own hearts, to help us think more deeply about the biblical text, and to engage our minds in significantly deep, Spirit led, thought. Sometimes I think they write them so they can themselves can think through a particular subject. Ultimately, I think what we hope to find is nuggets of exegetical wisdom and splendor–stuff we can use. In this accessible, well written commentary, the author gives us a variety of ways to approach the text of John's Letters:through theological reflection, Greek translation, explanation of the text, outlines, excursions, and introductions. Everyone will find at least one of these approaches useful in their own search for understanding of John's literature.

This commentary is thorough, enthusiastically written, and a welcome addition to the pantheon of literature available on Johannine literature. The reader will be greatly rewarded for journeying through this book and enjoying the thoughtful and timely insights Jobes has to offer. I am supremely happy to have read this book and I am glad I now know of Karen Jobes. I will look forward to reading more of her work and mixing her work with the authors and scholars whose work I have already enjoyed, and keeping it close at hand when I study John's literature again.

5/5 Stars

Important Book & Author Things

  • Where to purchase Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament: 1, 2, 3 John Amazon ($27.93, Kindle $22.99) Zondervan Academic ($34.99) CBD ($24.99)
  • Author: Karen Jobes
  • Academic Webpage: Karen Jobes
  • Editor: Clinton E. Arnold
  • Publisher: Zondervan Academic
  • Pages: 369
  • Year: 2014
  • Audience: Preachers, college professors, students of New Testament
  • Reading Level: College Level
  • Disclaimer: I was provided a free reader's copy courtesy of Zondervan Academic via NetGalley.