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    Entries in Book Review (34)


    Short Book Review :: Empty Promises by Pete Wilson

    I approach book reviews according to this truism: "Evaluate a book according to what it is, not what it would be if penned by a different author, at a different time, with a different intent." Empty Promises: The Truth About You, Your Desires, and the Lies You're Believing is written for those today chasing false gods, and challenges all to find the only God that can truly satisfy: God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

    Other books have been written on the topic of idolatry and the Christian response to the lures of money, sex, and power. Some of them are academic or spiritual classics, and Rev. Wilson quotes from them. But Rev. Wilson is a pastor, living today in Nashville, with a compassionate voice that is in tune with the lives of his people. As a work of practical, contemporary, pastoral theology, Empty Promises lives up to its billing. It accomplishes its purpose, and does so effectively, clearly, and with love. The illustrations are situated in our own time and circumstances; thus the book is timely. But the biblical treatments, which thread through each chapter and provide remedies for sinful maladies like pride, vanity, and works righteousness are sound and helpful for people of any time or place.

    If you are someone who struggles with image consciousness, approval-addiction, power mongering, unbridled lust, vanity, or greed, this book provides a pastoral answer: worship God. Let God be the object of your every desire, and let every other desire fall in to proper place. This book provides a vision, amplifying the vision of Scripture itself, with the proper focus being Jesus Christ, the one who came to rescue us from every destructive desire, to smash our idols, and release us to experience the freedom that comes with knowing the God of all love.

    NOTE: I received this book via Thomas Nelson's BookSneeze in exchange for a review. Learn more about Pete Wilson and his ministry by clicking here.


    Book Review :: The Fire of the Word by Chris Webb

    The Bible is a difficult, complex, and multi-layered book. It consists of two testaments, the Old and New, and was penned by numerous authors, with a long history of interpretation, and a longer history of transformation. It has been pondered by scholars and laypersons alike, and the resulting fruit has ranged from profound to commonplace holiness. It is regarded by faithful Christians as the inspired and authoritative Word of God, making wise for salvation and good for equipping every man and woman to live in accordance with righteousness.

    There is no greater book than the Bible. But how do we read? How do we read this great, difficult, complex, and multi-layered book? To read it well we are in need of reliable guides. We are in need of the church, the communion of saints. Chris Webb is one such voice, and in his book, The Fire of the Word, we encounter a companion for our journey, a reliable guide who can help us to read the Bible for transformation.

    Chris Webb's prose is tremendous. I have rarely encountered someone who has written so lucidly on the Bible and its role in spiritual formation. He takes the text seriously, and punctuates his grand claims for the transformative nature of its contents with illustrations that range the centuries in accessible, powerful language. Webb's book is designed to be devoured slowly, much like Scripture itself, for each chapter concludes with recommended readings from the Bible that illuminate the concepts and ideas Webb desires to impart. The design is practical, allowing for a multi-level impact on the reader.

    As a Renovare resource, this shouldn't come as a surprise. Renovare is dedicated to pulling together diverse streams within Christianity, taking the best from each in order to bring about spiritual renewal. This book is intended to help the reader think about the Bible in terms of theory and practice at diverse levels, though skewing contemplative. Webb offers varying meditations on how we best listen to God through the reading of Scripture, whether it be through lectio divina or other ancient practices. And he provides excellent examples that enlighten the reader, helping them to see that Scripture is always intended to lead us to the knowledge and worship of God. The Bible always points beyond itself, intending to bring us in to contact with the one who inspired it, so that we might be transformed to become like him.

    For those seeking a treatise on the doctrine of Scripture, or an exposition of the exact manner we may speak of the Bible as being inspired, you will not find such an account here. You will have to turn elsewhere for such a treatment. There is only a gloss given to the concerns surrounding the doctrine of biblical inspiration as it is articulated from both the right and the left. Webb isn't concerned with that war. He is concerned with our souls, and the manner by which the words of Scripture take root in our bodies, transforming us, renewing our minds, directing our hands. While some may consider this a point of weakness, I would brand it a strength. That discussion can be more profitably had elsewhere. Webb's business is different.

    As someone who loves the Bible, I thoroughly loved this book. It has inspired my love for God. I believe, therefore, that Webb accomplished his intention, to help his reader gain a passion for the Written Word in such a way that inspires greater love for the Incarnate Word, Jesus Christ. Mr. Webb writes, "As you open the Bible, Jesus is present. If your reading leads you to him, you're doing it right."



    Book Review :: 25 Books Every Christian Should Read

    Christianity is a treasure trove of wisdom.  But, as the book of Proverbs tells us, wisdom must be sought.  And, again as in the book of Proverbs, it is helpful when we are supplied with father and mother figures who would point us the way, who would instruct us in wisdom so that we might learn, develop, prosper, and grow.  25 Books Every Christian Should Read: A Guide to the Essential Spiritual Classics is a guide, compiled by wise and thoughtful Christian leaders, who seek to introduce us to those who have helped countless Christians be spiritually formed in the way of Jesus.

    The structure of 25 Books is simple.  After a word of introduction concerning methodology and the layout of each chapter, as well as a helpful, critical exposition concerning the logic of how and why each work is selected, 25 Books proceeds chronologically from Athanasius to Henri Nouwen, providing historical background for each work or its author, a justification for why that work is essential, guidelines for reading the selection, an excerpt, and discussion or reflection questions that can be used by individuals or small groups.

    The selections that are included are all strong recommendations--I have read 12 of the 25 books from start to finish myself, and am familiar with the other 13 selections, having read parts or quotations from each in other works.  The books also reflect a diversity across the Christian tradition.  There are books compiled by Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox.  There are theologians (Calvin) and philosophers (Pascal) and practitioners (Brother Lawrence).  There is both story (Bunyan, Dostoevsky) and poetry (Dante, Gerard Manley Hopkins).  There are men and women (Teresa of Avila, Julian or Norwich), though more men than women, not including the anonymous texts.  There is also more ideological and geographical diversity than might be supposed--though many of these authors might come from the "Western tradition", many preceded globalization and cultural homogenization.

    "Best of" or "Should Read" or "Must see" lists are notorious for being incomplete, and their compilation always leads to debate, as it should.  For as soon as the cut off line is established, it is inevitable that a number of selections will be left waiting near the precipice, looking on and wondering why they have been excluded so that another might be included.  What differentiates one from another?  Why is this book or record or movie or experience deemed worthy, while that one has not?  And oftentimes it is the case that this type of debate can be just as productive and fruitful as the discussion of those authors or artists or works that have been included.

    I make this point only to say that there are fair and unfair criticisms that have been levied regarding 25 Books.  There are those that may say that the selections given do not represent enough diversity, even among the contemporary authors included at the back.  In addition to recommending lighting a candle before cursing the darkness by providing their own recommendations, I would note that among those listed I see Russians and French and Spanish mystics.  I see British, German, and American authors.  I see Protestant, Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox voices.  And I also see a number of women on the editorial board who compiled these selections, and were surely afforded by the board itself a great deal of sway.  There are also a number of "Top 5" lists scattered throughout the book from voices like Emile Griffin and Brenda Quinn, in addition to Ron Sider and Richard Foster and James Bryan Smith.  There are men and women that helped shape this book, from a number of different traditions.  The inclusion of The Desert Fathers and Augustine also allow for ancient Eastern or African voices to be included--Hippo, or present day Annaba, is located in Algeria.

    A dear friend of mine has noted that this list "skews contemplative."  But of course!  The list has been compiled by Renovare, an organization that is known for pushing the church toward soul transformation, mining the riches of the Christian tradition for all it is worth, and sharing its treasures.  And while there is some truth to this charge, it is hard to say that Augustine or Calvin, Bonhoeffer or even C.S. Lewis have been favorites of contemplatives.  Granted, Confessions has been read as more of a devotional book, but Augustine's prose has been invaluable for the intellectual development of the church on doctrines such as human anthropology and sin, God's sovereignty, and grace.

    There are books that I would have preferred to be included, such as selections from the Standard Sermons of John Wesley, or excerpts from the Summa Theologica of Thomas Aquinas.  I'd also contend that Brian McLaren does not merit conclusion on the list of contemporary authors who should be read, having read and discussed in detail most everything he has ever published.  But as I've noted above, these lists must stop somewhere, and the exclusion of some provides a good contrast for the inclusion of others.

    I recommend this book as a "library builder", a helpful companion that points toward resources that are indispensable for every Christian library.  It is not an "end all" list, but a beginning point for conversation.  The discussion questions are solid, and the historical background is helpful.  The underlying point that Christians should read for spiritual formation is undeniable, and all that is discovered within this book's pages is worthy of passing on to other Christians, or even those considering the Christian faith.

    Solid resource, excellent selections, worthy of discussion, and trustworthy as a guide to authors and books that will build your soul.


    Book Review :: What is the Mission of the Church? by Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert

    Greg Gilbert and Kevin DeYoung, in their book What Is the Mission of the Church?: Making Sense of Social Justice, Shalom, and the Great Commission have chosen to contribute their voice to the intense discuss of missiology, raising important questions about the exact nature and scope of the work of the church in the world.  In what has been a developing and important discourse for church leaders, Mr. DeYoung and Mr. Gilbert set out to examine the important biblical texts and the theological claims that have been made by the strongest proponents of mission and Kingdom as a key and controlling concept for articulating the gospel and directing the ministry of the church.

    The intent of this book is to bring clarity to an important question, and one that has been burning hot for some time.  Missiology has become an important topic for pastors and theologians.  What is the mission of the church?  What is the church charged with doing in the world?  And how can we know if we are successfully carrying out that mission?  As DeYoung and Gilbert state:

    What is the mission of the church? . . . what do we even mean by mission?  And if that can be settled, we then face more difficult questions.  Is the mission of the church discipleship or good deeds or both?  Is the mission of the church the same as the mission of God?  Is the mission of the church distinct from the responsibilities of individual Christians?  Is the mission of the church a continuation of the mission of Jesus?  If so, what was his mission anyway?

    The answer, in essence, boils down to a declaration that “the church is sent into the world to witness to Jesus by proclaiming the gospel and making disciples of all nation.”  This leaves Mr. DeYoung and Mr. Gilbert with the task of defining proclamation, gospel, and disciple making, in contradistinction to other definitions on offer.

    The definition of mission that Mr. DeYoung and Mr. Gilbert offer is simple, though it does entail a great deal of unpacking.  And the definition itself is not universally agreed upon, and thus the need for this book.  The authors are on a mission not only to exegete the biblical texts that support their articulation of the mission of the church, but to critique other treatments of those same texts, and to show where other Christian leaders may be getting the mission of the church wrong.  Texts of critical importance include Genesis 12 (God’s call of Abram), Luke 4 (Jesus’s reading from Isaiah at Nazareth), and Matthew 28 (The Great Commission), Matthew 22 (The Great Commandment), and John 20 (“As the Father has sent e, so I send you.”). 

    Both the constructive and critical exegesis offered by Mr. DeYoung and Mr. Gilbert is helpful.  Foremost is their point that the gospel, and therefore the foundation of our mission, is something that is primarily announced as true, rather than declaratively embodied.  The authors state:

    We cannot re-embody Christ’s incarnational ministry any more than we can repeat his atonement.  Our role is to bear witness to what Christ has already done.  We are not new incarnations of Christ but his representatives offering life in his name, proclaiming his gospel, imploring others to be reconciled to God (2 Cor. 5:20).  This is how the exalted Christ carries out his mission through us.

    This is most certainly right, with an additional, careful nuance.  Christ, as our pattern (Luther’s terminology), invites us to take up our cross and follow him, and, as C.S. Lewis wrote so lucidly in Mere Christianity, put his life in to ours.  In addition to this, we too are to lead a cruciform life, and though we cannot repeat his atonement, we too lay our lives down for the world, as he did, not to the same effect in the cosmic scope, but as an act of witness to the ultimate act of God’s love on the cross.

    In my analysis, Mr. DeYoung and Mr. Gilbert have offered us a book that is filled with strong engagement with the biblical text, diverse citations from those across the missional movement, and some interesting critiques.  For those pondering the nature and mission of the church, there are some helpful points, both critiques and affirmations, that I would strongly agree with.  But the book is not without its weaknesses.  There are articulations of the scope of Christ’s salvific work that I find partial, and a softening of the imperatives surrounding obedience to justice related commands that I find detractive from the overall mission of the church.  Rather than propelling us into the world, there are elements in Mr. Gilbert and Mr. DeYoung’s presentations that I believe keep us nailed to the pews, listening again and again to a singular articulation of the gospel of Christ’s atoning death.  And while we do need to hear this message again and again, allowing it to humble and fuel us, there is work in the world that must be done.  That work, the work of justice and mercy, is a logical outcome that flows from the nature of Christ’s work to save individual souls, and our preaching should reflect this. The resulting fruit should be not only individual who care about justice and mercy, but churches who actively take up that work.

    Mr. DeYoung and Mr. Gilbert may object, saying this is most definitely not their intent, and that the closing chapters of their book do continue to stress the importance of engagement and advocacy for justice causes in the world.  But their claims fall victim, I believe, to “death by a thousand paper cuts”.  With so many qualifications about the nature of the gospel and the narrow scope of what discipleship entails, in an effort not to add works to the good news of grace, I believe they weaken their thrust in an unnecessary manner.

    Though a helpful book, it is not without weaknesses.  Polemical in nature and in tone, yet constructively critical, read What is the Mission of the Church? if you are working diligently to nail down an articulation of God’s mission that is biblically faithful and theologically sound.

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


    Book Review :: Renovation of the Church by Kent Carlson and Mike Lueken

    Kent Carlson and Mike Lueken desire to lead a church where people are becoming like Jesus. As co-pastors of Oak Hills Church in Folsom, California, Mr. Lueken and Mr. Carlson have been on a journey. After founding Oak Hills in 1984, Mr. Carlson adopted many of the principles of Willow Creek in leading his church to become a growing, seeker-sensitive congregation. But over time, Mr. Carlson and his staff began to become uncomfortable with the witness, methodology, and philosophy of ministry that prevailed at their church. A change was needed. Rather than being consumer driven and seeker oriented, the leadership felt called to be Kingdom driven and discipleship oriented, and as a result of this new vision, everything changed. The authors describe this as a transition to making "spiritual formation", rather than numerical growth, their primary orientation.

    And while this may sound inspiring, this reshaping of vision came with a cost. Mr. Carlson and Mr. Lueken recast worship, abandoned the "show", and watched the church dwindle numerically. After being held up as a beacon of success as a Willow Creek style congregation, the bright perception that came with high numbers began to dim. Mr. Lueken and Mr. Carlson tell their story in this book of making a radical shift in philosophy of ministry--one that they believe in--and invite other leaders to reconsider their models, their language, their discourse, and their method for making disciples of Jesus Christ.

    As a leadership tale, this sounds good.

    But then why three stars?* This may strike some as odd. Why would you assign a book a three star rating if the book is confusing, at best?

    Simple. This book contains very high highs and very low lows. And as both take root, the ensuing result is a mudding of the waters. Christianity, being a deep well, contains a rich, nourishing tradition that delivers salvation, nurtures the soul, and fosters union with God. The church is called to present the water contained within that deep well, the Water of Life, Jesus Christ himself, in a manner that is compelling and clear and faithful to the biblical witness. I contend that Mr. Carlson and Mr. Lueken, while well intentioned, do not describe a church that accomplishes this aim. The gospel of the Kingdom, which they strive to announce, is muddled and unclear. The switch from consumer, seeker sensitive church to contemplative, spiritual formation church is strange. And the tale of their move from a numerically thriving church to a church with dwindling attendance and paring back to establish a culture that better forms people to actually follow Jesus is puzzling--in many aspects I found it to be more tragic than heroic--and this is not because I do not agree with the aim of helping people to follow Jesus, it is because of the method employed to get there. I found myself wondering if there was any other way to move the church from here to there without crushing the spirit of so many people, without altering worship so radically as to drive so many people away, and without having to rail against the congregation for their consumer mentality in such forthright and grating ways. Is slowness not an aspect of spiritual formation and growth? Is patience not a primary Christian virtue?

    I offer two additional critiques.

    First, in this book Mr. Lueken and Mr. Carlson fail to make clear distinctions between "the church" and "the staff and elders" when they tell their tale of change. In describing their reorientation of the church around notions of Kingdom and spiritual formation, they should be saying, "the staff and elders". If the church was truly moving that direction, then they would not have lost so many members upon making their shift. This is a top down change, not a bottom up change, and should be read as such.

    Secondly, it is disturbing to read Mr. Carlson and Mr. Lueken describe the loss of clarity that "spiritual formation" brought to the church concerning how to invite others to participate in the life of the church, and to come a saving faith in Jesus Christ. In critiquing consumer driven gospel proclamations, they offer no alternative that can be grasped and taught to others. In my view, they have no gospel. They have Jesus as moral example, as spiritual teacher, and giver of life, but they do not have a concise and transmittable piece of "good news". 

    I am passionate about spiritual formation. I am passionate about the Kingdom of God. I am also passionate about seeing persons who do not believe Christianity is true discover that it is reasonable, compelling, and persuasive, and that the gospel announcement of Jesus's life, death, and resurrection contains the power to awaken the soul to a converting and transformative faith. The gospel--the announcement of the present Kingdom as evidenced in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ--itself is spiritually forming. It is the beginning of a new work. And the church is the crucible wherein the transformative results of that news are brought to bear on the life of the disciple, who is then commissioned both to go forth and serve as one changed, as well as to announce that same news that radically altered their own life.

    This book is important and valuable. But I do not think Mr. Carlson and Mr. Lueken have provided a model to follow. I do believe they have given us a conversation piece. They have given us an example of a church that has attempted to be serious about discipleship and thoughtful regarding our cultural situation, rooted as we are in consumer America.

    Read it, debate it, and learn from it. Just don't treat it as a gospel of the definite new way of being church. Otherwise, you will have swung the pendulum too far.

    *I assigned this book three of five stars at