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    Entries in Book Review (34)

    Friday
    Aug182017

    Book Review: James Bryan Smith's The Magnificent Story

    James Bryan Smith is one of my favorite contemporary writers on Christian spiritual formation. His latest book, The Magnificent Story: Uncovering a Gospel of Beauty, Goodness, and Truth is another fine contribution to the field. Professor Smith’s writing is pastoral, warm, and intelligent, and this book presents a helpful approach to thinking about God, getting to know Jesus, and living as a disciple in the world. Smith helps us think theologically through the lens of the transcendentals: beauty, goodness, and truth.

    Professor Smith’s book addresses the human longing for a great and magnificent story, one that matches up with our deep desire to be part of a narrative that is rich with beauty, goodness, and truth. Smith believes that the good news of and about Jesus is that story, revealed to us in the life, person, and work of Christ. But Smith argues that the fullness of the Jesus story has been shrunken or reduced in ways that get things all out of balance, emphasizing God's wrath over God's grace, judgement over love, being right over being compassionate, and eternal life in the future over eternal life now. Smith addresses those imbalances throughout the book, offering a different way of seeing and understanding God that aligns more closely with a vision of the beautiful, good, and true.

    Smith focuses on practices in addition to offering counternarratives and alternative ways of thinking about the Christian story. Each chapter ends with a prescribed exercise that helps the reader begin to notice ways God is at work in the world. This approach is similar to what Smith offered in The Apprentice Series: Common Narrative, Counter Narrative, and Practice. In this book, narratives about God are examined in light of Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience, and Smith tests these narratives in light of beauty, goodness, and truth. Smith also encourages his readers to join with others in community as they explore the ideas presented, trusting the Holy Spirit to guide group conversation and to work by grace through the practices he suggests.

    Professor Smith engages theologically with several ideas that are open to debate, and some readers may find themselves in disagreement. Smith challenges penal substitutionary atonement, for instance, as an example of a problematic doctrine. He argues that this representation of the Father pitted against the Son for our benefit does not accord with the idea of a merciful and loving God, nor does it take into account the full story given in Scripture. According to Smith, penal substitution is a shrunken story. Smith argues that we need forgiveness, our sins are real, and that the cross does defeat our sin. However, Smith argues that there is a different way of understanding atonement that better represents God. Smith’s approach is known as the Christus Victor model.

    On this point of doctrine, and perhaps on other points as well, some readers will have quibbles and even deep disagreements. The Christian community is no stranger to disagreement. Our perpetual challenge is to disagree in love while maintaining a firm commitment to unity under Christ, the head of the church. Smith’s critiques are charitable, I believe, and worthy of discussion among Christians. As Smith notes, some beliefs are harmful. Therefore, Christians must always be as clear as possible concerning what we believe, and undertake the challenging work of theology in a manner that is truthful, attractive, and good.

    Smith’s invitation to intimacy with God, knowing the loving kindness of Jesus as Savior, experiencing the availability of grace, and growth in sanctification is clearly explained, compelling, and attractive. This book rings with beauty, goodness, and truth. There may be points of disagreement among Christians that can be discussed in good faith. But the allegiance to Jesus is foremost. In him the church is united.

    I’m always on the lookout for resources that will help people draw near to God, experience the grace of Jesus, and engage seriously with discipleship. This book fits the bill. I recommend it. I appreciate the witness of James Bryan Smith. And I am glad to share with him in the magnificent story of Jesus Christ.

    Saturday
    Sep132014

    Book Review: Geisler and McCoy's The Atheist's Fatal Flaw

    There is more than one way to refute an argument.

    One way is to argue directly against the assertion, showing it to be wrongheaded.

    But another way is to uncover the weak points and expose fallacies. One such approach is to expose internal inconsistencies, thus rendering the argument self-refuting.

    Norman Geisler and Daniel McCoy use this strategy in establishing the truth of Christianity in their book The Atheist's Fatal Flaw (BakerBooks, 2014). Geisler and McCoy do their very best to outline arguments against theism as they are presented by atheists such as Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Dan Barker, and Christopher Hitchens, quoting from primary sources. Then, through the application of logic, Geisler and McCoy expose problems and impart confidence to those seeking to defend the credibility of Christian claims concerning reality. While this book is technically written, Geisler and McCoy are clear and accessible for those seeking to engage in conversation with skeptics on faith, doubt, and the space between. My familiarity with the classical arguments for theism and for Christian belief, along with my reading of the intellectuals Geisler and McCoy set out to refute, helped my comprehension and enjoyment of this book. But I'd recommend this book to those just getting started with apologetics, as well. The subject matter is broad, and the presentation fresh.

    Regarding the progression within this work, Geisler and McCoy address the problem of moral evil, human autonomy and freedom, submission to the divine will and corresponding favor, death, guilt, divine punishment or pardon, and eternal destinies. They then raise specific inconsistencies, and offer an appeal for open inquiry concerning Christian truth claims as Christians present them at their best, rather than as weakened or distorted versions of Christian theology. In each chapter, Geisler and McCoy demonstrate that the atheist's primary objection is not the issue raised, but rather the notion of God in and of itself. Atheists have no problem with morality, nor with naming certain actions as definitively evil. Rather, they have objections to a God would might set conditions to allow evils to occur, or who is a final arbiter concerning morality. They have no objections to restraint of human autonomy and the limiting of freedom, so long as a divine person has not decreed it so. The primary objection, as noted by Geisler and McCoy in each chapter, is to God.

    Christians should be skilled in presenting the reasons for what they believe. This requires familiarity with basic arguments against theism, and ready answers that clear away rubble and roadblocks that obscure the pathway to belief. I will keep this volume at the ready on my shelves, and review it from time to time. This is a helpful book, and will have great value to any Christian apologist.

    Note: I received this book in exchange for a review.

    Saturday
    Sep132014

    Book Review: Zondervan's NIV Teen Study Bible

    Every time I visit a bookstore, I take a look at the Bibles on sale. Zondervan's NIV Teen Study Bible is widely used by young people. Whenever I have a student ask for recommendations for an age appropriate Bible, I want to be able to point them to helpful resources. This edition is solid.

    Teenagers have basic needs. The translation needs to be readable and accessible. The text notes need to be exegetically sound and practically helpful. Basic historical information makes the stories come alive, and this edition includes this kind of help. And, if possible, teen study Bibles prove essential when application is made to life today. This Bible makes a run at each of those aims, though the notes, application, and commentary in this edition is by no means exhaustive. Good teachers and secondary resources add perspective and depth of insight, and I trust that if your teen is reading this Bible, those will be available.

    One notable aspect of this version of the Bible is the inclusion of The Apostles' Creed as a theological rubric that guides the reading and understanding of the text. For creedal traditions, this will be a welcome feature. For church traditions which pay little mind to the creeds, this could be a cause for concern. In the early pages of this Bible, the creed is accompanied by Scripture references. I think this was a good move on the part of the editorial team.

    Concerning look and feel, my copy is a hardcover edition, which feels sturdy. The pages also have a good weight.

    Here is some information on specific features:

    • Big Picture Book Recaps: Tucked inside each book, there is a "Panorama" heading. In a sentence, the student is reminded of the primary theme.
    • Keeping Q & A Personal: Throughout this Bible, there are letters written addressing teenage concerns. The "Dear Jordan" inserts provide wisdom on moral dilemmas or theological searching.
    • Key Concept Exposition and Summaries: "To the Point" and "Instant Access" provide illustrations or direct applications of key passages or verses.
    • Unpacking the Apostles' Creed: This Bible begins with a copy of the Apostles' Creed, and the corresponding Scripture passages. Students are given both a basic theological framework through which to read the Bible, and guidance on where to find the foundations for these beliefs.
    • Book Overviews: Each book of the Bible starts with an overview, giving the reader an idea of what they will encounter. These are brief, have a basic outline, and provide a little bit of historical context. Would be complemented nicely with a commentary, Bible dictionary, or other resource.
    • Trivia: Insets raise questions and offer answers. Trivia questions relate directly to the text at hand, so if students are reading, they can search for answers, or check their reading retention and comprehension.
    • Full Color Maps: Patriarchs, Exodus and Conquest, 12 Tribes, Davidic and Solomonic Kingdoms, Life and Times of Jesus, the Missionary Journeys, and First Century Jerusalem. Those maps parallel the Bible stories most teenagers will explore as part of a Sunday School or midweek gathering.

    I'd recommend this Bible for teenagers. It's colorful, interactive, and constructed with youth in mind.

    Note: I received this Bible from BookLook Bloggers in exchange for a review.

    Saturday
    Jun282014

    Book Review :: What's Best Next by Matt Perman

    Whether you are an executive or a pastor, a student or a mom, you have projects. You have tasks. You have things to get done. You have papers to keep track of and appointments to keep. You have places to be and goods to deliver. Your life is geared toward productivity--the flourishing of a business, a family, a school, or a community.

    Those responsibilities come with stress. One of our greatest challenges in life is to discern exactly what is ours to do, and to make the best use of our days.

    Matt Perman has written a book that shows us how to steward our life well, and to find motivation for productivity in the gospel itself. What's Best Next: How the Gospel Transforms the Way You Get Things Done is a helpful, clear read on how to approach every dimension of your life as a Christian, using productivity methods as a way to relieve stress, do excellent work, bless your neighbor, and serve the world.

    Over the past decade I've read a number of books that are well known in the productivity field. I've read David Allen, Tim Ferriss, Daniel Pink, and Julie Morgenstern. I recommend reading their books. But Matt Perman's book is unique. While Perman provides practical tips for approaching your life, like using a time map, making the most of your to-do lists, creating idea-capture systems, managing email, building a team, and delegating responsibilities, his greatest gift is providing the reader with a doctrinal and theological frame through which to view productivity in all of life.

    To focus in on one example, Perman makes a helpful distinctions between work efficiency and effectiveness. Think about it: you can be very efficient at work while doing the wrong things. The key is to be focused on your God-given mission, and to be effective, accomplishing tasks that bless others. Perman also explains how efficiency doesn't solve the problem of the never-ending flow of incoming tasks, can make things worse by draining your energy, lower morale, hamper innovation, and remove a sense of meaning from work. In this instance, your doctrinal and theological frame makes a big difference. Effectiveness keeps the ultimate end in view, and can motivate you to do the right things along the way that will help you get there. What you believe about God shapes the how and the why of effectiveness.

    This, of course, raises the question of how to identify the right things. That is when Perman expands his discussion of our doctrine and theology. Perman argues that our work should be God-centered. Our lives do not need to be balanced, but instead focused on the right thing--God. It is God who provides us with meaning and depth in all areas of life. Perman reminds the reader that God is foundational to right and true principles, defines for us what the right things are to get done, and lastly, asserts the fact that God is "what matters most." Pleasing God should be our aim in all efforts--everything we do should help us to know, love, serve, and tell others about God in our personal and professional lives.

    Perman's position that Christians might be able to do the most good for the cause of the gospel simply by doing their work well is also spot on. Whether your an underling or a CEO, a great deal of good can come simply by accomplishing one's work with excellence. Business is a powerful avenue for the blessing of other people. Therefore, our work should be done unto the glory of God and in service of other people. This can be challenging, for each vocation has particular temptations and vices that can best be addressed by a fellowship of Christian professionals working in the same field. But it's nonetheless a worthy venture. While the best companies do exist to thrive financially and generate a profit, they also exist to create better lives for employees, to create products that are helpful, and to make life better.

    Even if you don't work full time, this book will provide you with a great deal of wisdom. If you are a parent, you will find instruction that might help you better structure your time and focus more fully on the projects that matter. Perman's chapters on discerning your life's mission and creating a flexible time structure will help anyone. This book will help anyone get things done.

    Lastly, this book doesn't necessarily have to be read cover to cover. You can use the table of contents, identify the type of instruction you need at the moment, and get to work. Each chapter also has helpful summations, and the book even ends with a 500 word summary of exactly what you'll find in WBN. If you are a knowledge worker like me, you might want to immediately read parts 3 to 6, where Perman explains the DARE model behind gospel-driven productivity: define, architect, reduce, and execute.

    It isn't enough to read a bunch of productivity literature. Eventually, you have to determine your approach and put it in to practice. There is work to do and projects to complete. But if you're looking for a place to start, pick up Matt Perman's book. It's a worthwhile read.

    If you like what you find, you might want to check out Matt's blog or follow him on Twitter.

    Saturday
    Jun072014

    Book Review :: Christ-Shaped Character by Helen Cepero

    The clenching line in St. Paul’s great meditation in 1 Corinthians 13 is this: “Now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.” Faith, hope, and love are determinative virtues for those who choose them as guides. But even beyond our choice to live according to these virtues is their inherent gifted-ness. Faith, hope, and love can be our possession because God has offered them to us as gifts, made accessible through the Son.

    Helen Cepero wants us to choose the path of love, faith, and hope. Her inversion of the virtues is intentional, for she recognizes that faith and hope are made possible through  love, “the greatest of these.” In Christ-Shaped Character: Choosing Love, Faith and Hope (IVP Formatio, 2014), she outlines a vision of discipleship to Christ that is narrative shaped and grounded in practice. Her writing is personal and welcoming in tone.

    The book has a three-fold structure, identified in the subtitle. Underneath the heading of love, Cepero tells the reader of our status in Christ as God’s beloved, the practice of hospitality, and the challenge of forgiveness. In her section on faith, she focuses attention on our greatest desires, and how every true desires finds its satisfaction in discipleship to Jesus. She also explores vulnerability as a vital posture for the disciple, and the need for sustained commitment if one is to move toward holiness. Lastly, Cepero expounds on hope through the practices of watching for God, assuming an anticipatory posture of infinite possibility, and using improvisation as a means to learn how to trust God.

    Each chapter begins with a story, develops a central theme, identifies an application, and recommends a practice. In her chapter on vulnerability, Cepero tells of her terrifying experience of nearly losing her son to sudden illness. After handing her child over to an emergency medical personnel, Cepero recounts her uncertainty, anxiety, and guilt. Surprisingly, she was met with grace. She had to be vulnerable in handing over her child, who recovered, and she had to be vulnerable in telling her story.

    Through this story, Cepero explains how the willingness to be vulnerable allows us to release our fears and enter an unexpected grace, whether from a neighbor or from God. In order to help us personalize this truth, Cepero introduces the practice of surrendering prayer, where we turn our desires and worries over to God, release them, and then choose to embrace a deeper faith.

    Cepero’s story is representative of what I take to be the journey of many Christians. She has sought to faithfully follow after Jesus, but not without struggle. She has matured throughout the years, and been amazed by the work of the Holy Spirit in ordinary moments. She has grown more compassionate towards those on the margins, and worked for justice. Her narrative approach, which I expect many readers will embrace, is this book’s greatest strength.

    But perhaps the strength of this book may also be its weakness. In her final chapter, Cepero writes, “Perhaps you reach the end of this book disappointed there is no road map, no prescriptive path, no global positioning system for guidance to a destination. Instead, there are only stories—my story, your story, the world’s story.” Some readers will reach this conclusion.

    However, Cepero also notes, “All of our stories are meant to be lived in the larger story of God’s love in Jesus Christ.” Among the many things that this means is that our stories are not our own, nor is our story’s resolution. Our world is addicted to self-help literature and quick solutions to our problems. Cepero refuses to assume it is her role or responsibility to set us straight and “fix us up good, ” as is said in my neighborhood. Instead, she offers her friendship, a cure to our ills that does not always lead directly to the dissolution of our problems, but instead provides us with companions to bear the load.

    Some books are doctrinaire in theological focus, others determined to exposit an array of biblical texts. I think there is a place for those kinds of books. But there is also a place for Christians to tell their story, and to do so within the context of their working theologies and understandings of the biblical narrative. Cepero’s work is that kind of book. She offers her life and understandings, and invites others to follow Christ alongside her, experiencing the kind of transformation and change that he can bring. It is not always linear or clear, but it is certain and good. And the path we are invited to travel is not only well trodden by those who have come before us, but is meant to be shared by those now with us.

    That is the invitation. Walk the path.