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    Entries in Book Review (34)

    Monday
    Dec192011

    Book Review :: Adele Calhoun's Invitations From God

    Adele Calhoun is right in observing that "The things we say yes to and the things we say no to determine the terrain of our future", and is most certainly correct in saying of God, "As the first and great Inviter, God devotes himself to sending out invitations to come join his divine community." There is a God who desires fellowship with his creatures and close communion with human beings, who are created in the divine image. That God knows that we exist within a fallen world, but loves us enough to be at work to bring about our redemption, our restoration, and our healing so that we might be commissioned in turn to be agents of redemption, restoration, and healing. God desires to equip us so that we might be heralds of Jesus Christ, announcing his life, death, and resurrection, and inviting all people to know, love, and serve him. Calhoun's book, Invitations from God: Accepting God's Offer to Rest, Weep, Forgive, Wait, Remember and More, gives us a foundation from which to work as we open ourselves to God and respond to those divine invitations that can bring about progress in our spiritual journey.

    For those familiar with much of the current literature on spiritual formation, Calhoun is typical in her emphasis on participating in the work of God in our own lives. Thus, for those coming from strongly Calvinistic or Reformed traditions, the synergism that underlies Calhoun's approach may be disconcerting. Calhoun's opening chapter is titled, "An Invitation to Participate In Your Own Healing", stressing our part and God's part in our restoration. She is certain to stress that this invitation "does not mean we earn our salvation; it simply means we taste the fruit of it through participation." This restorative or healing dynamic is illustrated through an appeal to John 5, where Jesus asks the sick man by the pool of Bethesda, "Do you want to get well?" After expanding on the sick man's qualifications, she states, "Transformation and healing always begin in a deep place of desire. There needs to be some deep inner willingness to take a risk on Jesus and begin again and again." 

    In principle I am in agreement with Calhoun. But I wish she spent more energy and effort delving in to the source of that desire to be healed, to be transformed, to experience rest in God's presence. In other words, I wish she would've spent more time explaining how that desire is itself a witness to God's grace at work in our lives, a preemptive movement by the Spirit of God to place within us a will and a want to be made new. While embracing a notion of participation, or synergism, we must continually stress grace, and God's movement toward us that precedes any movement we make toward him.

    The other chapters in Calhoun's work flow from the first. Once one has accepted the invitation to be healed, specific avenues through which that healing comes are expounded. She writes soundly concerning the biblical invitations to follow Jesus, trusting him for divine guidance and leadership above and before all other competing masters. She writes of the invitation to be present with community, learning to love other people. She provides sound wisdom concerning our need for rest, for mourning, for admitting the limits of our own knowledge (or the possibility we might be wrong), how to forgive, how to patiently wait, pray, remember who we are and who God is, and finally an invitation to "the most excellent way", discovered in Christ, witnessed to by the church, and captured within the stories of the Bible.

    This book is a good spiritual formation resource. Calhoun touches on a number of subjects that are critical for our growth in Christlikeness, and does so with biblical wisdom and easily grasped pastoral illustrations. I'd recommend this book for use with small groups who can discuss its contents, applying what they find to their context. I'd also recommend it for individuals who are seeking a guide to help them learn to rest in God's presence, to forgive, to grow in humility, to pray, and to grow in love for God and neighbor.

    Monday
    Nov212011

    Book Review :: Adam Hamilton's The Journey: Walking the Road to Bethlehem

    A few weeks ago I provided a review of Mike Slaughter's Christmas Is Not Your Birthday, an Advent title from Abingdon Press that should help congregations prepare for the celebration of Christmas.  Adam Hamilton's The Journey: Walking the Road to Bethlehem is likewise an Advent title, based loosely on a series of sermons given at Church of the Resurrection in 2010.  In this short book, Hamilton focuses on the life of Mary, helping us to see with clarity the magnitude of her life in light of her faithful response to God's calling as the one who would bear the Christ in her womb, mother him, mourn his death at Calvary, and eventually be found among the disciples at Pentecost.  Mary has been a bugaboo for Protestants, so Hamilton's treatment is refreshing and helpful for non-Catholics who have not heard enough about the mother of Jesus via sermon or in Sunday school lessons.

    This isn't to say that Mary has not been present in Protestant tellings, nor that she has not been important.  But it seems to me that her life has been reflected upon too seldom, for there are so many other things taking place at the birth of Jesus demanding our attention.  Herod, threatened by the prospect of the birth of another king, orders the murder of a host of children.  Intellectuals from the east have come from afar to visit Jesus as a child.  Joseph, according to Matthew's account, has struggled with the news of Mary's pregnancy, and must be assured by way of a dream that the marriage is right.  Shepherds, according to Luke, have been summoned to the place of Jesus's birth by a host of angels, and depart amazed, sharing all they have heard and seen with others.  Also in Luke, it is Mary's cousin Elizabeth, who in old age has conceived a child who will go before Jesus.  His name will be called John.

    Amidst all this commotion, Mary is mostly quiet, submissive, and open to God's will.  With the exception of the Magnificat, found in Luke's gospel, her remarks are mostly brief, and the editorial descriptions of her and her inner dispositions are sparse.  Mary responds to the Lord's messenger in faith, is obedient to her calling, and though never forgotten, does little to bring the spotlight solely upon herself.  It's as though her life is meant to point beyond herself, to the One who has called her, who has endowed her with the responsibility of bringing in to the world the one who will be Messiah.  She seems to understand that she is not the centerpiece of the narrative.  She is not the pivot upon which history turns.  But without her, the story is not complete.  Jesus has a particularity.  He has a mother.  He was born a Jew.  And we need to learn from whence Jesus comes.  We need to learn from Mary.

    Rev. Hamilton thus beckons Mary forth.  He says, "Mary, let us look at your life, and learn from it."  And he does so by carefully tending to the biblical text, utilizing biblical scholarship in a clear and helpful manner, and finally, adds a pastoral touch that makes these narratives relatable and applicable, illuminating ways these texts might inform the life of a faithful person through the use of examples from his ministry, as well as through the use of short, written prayers that concretize a lesson, such as learning to listen to God like Mary did to the angel, serving as a messenger like the shepherds, or finding a Mary and Elizabeth in your life.  

    Rev. Hamilton also takes care to distinguish between Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant teachings concerning Mary, addressing issues like the Catholic dogma of the Immaculate Conception (most outside the Catholic tradition think this refers to Jesus--it does not, rather, it refers to the belief that Mary was conceived without sin).  Hamilton is also careful to address the debate among conservative and liberal scholars on the doctrine of the virginal conception of Jesus, arguing that both Matthew and Luke sought "to be clear that the biological reality of Mary's pregnancy was made possible by the direct action of God."  

    In addition to these doctrinal concerns, Hamilton addresses historical questions, tracing Mary's steps from the announcement of the angel to the birth of Christ.  In doing so, Hamilton tackles simple but elucidating questions, such as the path Joseph and Mary may have taken when traveling to Bethlehem, and the nature of the dwelling Mary and Joseph occupied during Jesus's birth, as well as the cultural and religious reasons why they may have been in a stable, instead of in the home of a relative.

    I have read a number of Rev. Hamilton's books, and this might be the one that I have enjoyed the most.  It is warm, pastoral, and focused primarily on getting the story straight.  Hamilton wants us to know Mary--who she was, where she has been, and the relevance she has for us today.

    I would suggest this book as an Advent study, or for a study of the life of Mary.  It is a good resource for small groups and other fellowships that can foster discussion, evoke reflection, and challenge the reader to greater faithfulness to the God who called forth Mary to bear the Christ, and who also calls us forth as witnesses, as heralds, as servants.

    Disclaimer: In accordance with federal guidelines, I must disclose this book was received in exchange for a review.

    Monday
    Oct172011

    Book Review :: Sanctuary of the Soul by Richard J. Foster

    In 1 Kings 19, the prophet Elijah flees from Queen Jezebel, who has commanded that Elijah be killed to avenge the humiliation of the prophets of Baal at Mount Carmel.  Elijah fears for his life, but is met by God and equipped for a journey to Mount Horeb, where God will reaffirm Elijah's prophetic calling, provide him with hope, and teach him to listen.

    After arriving at the mountain, you will recall that Elijah witnesses a great wind, a mighty earthquake, and a consuming fire, but the Lord is not found in these displays.  It is not until Elijah hears the sound of sheer silence that he comes to a knowledge of God's presence.  Only then is he prepared to listen.

    Richard Foster, in Sanctuary of the Soul: Journey into Meditative Prayer, encourages his readers to enter the silence, to quiet the soul, and to assume a posture of attentiveness.  Foster's writings have consistently named our greatest spiritual problem as distraction, and through this small book, he shares wisdom with his readers and helps them to learn the fine art of listening to and abiding with God.

    Foster's work is structured according to three primary themes: foundational concerns, the practice of meditative prayer, and assistance in resolving everyday problems.  Prayer is challenging for many people, and the notion that we might enter in to an extended period of solitude, silence, or attentive listening as an act of prayer may seem foreign.  Oftentimes, we are accustomed to tailoring our prayers according to our wants and needs, rather than engaging with God as a willing recipient of grace, wisdom, and guidance.

    First, Foster begins with foundational matters.  The book opens with a simple affirmation:

    Jesus Christ is alive and here to teach his people himself.  His voice is not hard to hear; his vocabulary is not difficult to understand.  But learning to listen well and to hear correctly is no small task.

    Christians believe this to be true.  Many Christians, however, express reservations concerning our ability to hear a direct word from God.  We find it hard to fathom that God may speak to us directly beyond what we find in the pages of Scripture.  We go beyond Foster's claim that learning to listen well and hear correctly is "no small task," and instead regard it as impossible.  But it is not impossible.  God has issued the invitation, desiring to commune with you.  Such communion requires stepping beyond the Bible as God's revealed Word toward the Word Jesus Christ.  This in no way demeans the Bible.  Rather, it illuminates its true purpose.  According to Foster the Bible is a dynamic text that instructs and leads us into a dynamic relationship with Jesus himself.  Within the context of that relationship, Foster persuades the reader to develop "a familiar friendship with Jesus," a phrase helpfully borrowed from Thomas A'Kempis.

    This friendship requires a transformation of the heart, first through a recognition that such transformation will be the result of a Presence outside of ourselves.  For the Christian, the Reformer of Hearts is none other than the Lord God.  Our re-making is an act of sheer grace and divine power.  Foster acknowledges that it is the condition of the human heart that God must address, eradicating that which is false, and establishing that which is true, rooting out wickedness and renewing us in righteousness.  God must recast our character according to the image of the Son.  In order to accomplish the task of renewed character, Foster helpfully describes a movement of descent from mind to heart.  It is not only our intellect that must be reformed, but our affections as well.

    Next, Foster identifies three postures for entering meditative prayer: being present, beholding the Lord, and cultivating an inward attentiveness.  Each of these postures is the subject of a short chapter, and it is here that I believe many of the true gems of this book are found.  Modern people often live as though God does not exist, even if they are actively involved in a church, and these chapters help to counteract this supposition, helping the practitioner--the ordinary, everyday person--to realize a continual awareness of God's voice and leading.

    Lastly, Foster addresses practical concerns.  First, he gently encourages those of us who suffer from a wandering mind, giving pastoral wisdom and strategies for how we might become more focused.  Secondly, Foster provides biblical instruction on the reality of our adversary, the devil, who seeks to lead us astray and prevent us from communing with God.  Lastly, Foster addresses common questions that have arisen through his years of teaching about contemplative prayer.

    Sanctuary of the Soul is a practical and clear guide to a life of prayer.  Foster is focused on the individual--he uses personal illustrations and experience to provide life-on-life instruction for those seeking to enjoy God's presence and attune themselves to God's voice.  He does not provide instruction on how this might in turn affect a body of people, such as a church or small group who engage in the practice of contemplative prayer.  This does not mean that the book is without benefit.  Though it is individually focused, the degree to which this book can affect change at the personal level could make an impact on others.  Churches and other groups of Christians are in deep need of those who have learned to listen carefully to God.  They in turn help us to hear God as well.

    This small book, a quick and very useful read, is one I would recommend.

    For more a video introduction to the book from Richard Foster, click here

    Wednesday
    Sep142011

    Book Review :: Mike Slaughter's Christmas is Not Your Birthday

    If you are cognizant of "Christmas Creep", sound the alarm.  Too soon, unfortunately, the American marketplace will begin their assault on the consumer, hitting us on all fronts with holiday displays, special sales and price breaks, winter festivals, and Christmakwanzaku music.  Be prepared for the invocation of the sentimental, predation upon our desires to please (or impress) friends and family through lavish gifts, and encouragement to buy, buy, buy!  Christmas, as we hear year in and year out, has become a celebration of our ourselves, our capacities to purchase, the derivation of pleasure from novelty, and a basking in the glorious privileges of credit.  Christmas often has little to do with Jesus.

    Pastors and church leaders are not immune, and must keep watch over their own souls, as well as the souls of those entrusted to their care.  The dominant secular Christmas narrative is as much the fault of the church as it is a convenient foil for our exhortation.  The Advent season requires preparation, and while I am hesitant to post this review so far in advance, knowing that contemplation of Christmas creep, consumerism, and a counter-attack strategy may only accelerate the spiral of what may one day be a year round Yule-tide shindig of buying and selling, I am willing to take the risk if exposure to resources like this one will help churches engage in a serious and informed discourse concerning how we should live by an alternative narrative.

    Mike Slaughter, in his book Christmas Is Not Your Birthday: Experience the Joy of Living and Giving like Jesus, has launched an offensive on our prevalent, inwardly curved celebration of the birth of the world's Messiah.  It is one such resource for establishing an alternative, truthful narrative needed during the Christmas season concerning both time (never in a hurry, for our Savior has come) and abundance (we have been given the riches of the Kingdom in Jesus the Christ).  Rather than racking up debt, spending our resources on others either to impress or simply due to lack of self control, we can remember that in the manger, the payment of our debt has arrived, freeing us for generosity while also enabling us to live with frugality, discipline, and self-control, exercising faithful stewardship of our resources.  Slaughter wishes for us to celebrate Christmas as the birth of Jesus, a beautiful child entrusted to a faithful woman, Mary, brought in to a world that was and is a mess to bring about redemption and hope and a foretaste of new creation.

    Slaughter is the pastor of Ginghamsburg Church, located in Tipp City, Ohio.  He is an ordained elder in The United Methodist Church, and is known widely as an excellent speaker who is passionate about discipleship and evangelism.  His church has made a tremendous impact through The Sudan Project, funded in part by the generosity of his congregation, who have given to this initiative since 2005, leading to provision of education, clean water, and subsistence agriculture assistance for the Sudanese.  Under Mike's leadership, Ginghamsburg has invested in excess of $5 million in the region of Darfur.

    Christmas is Not Your Birthday is a continuation of the ministry Slaughter has begun with his people and for the Sudanese.  The dream Slaughter has for the church is evident: he envisions a generous people willing to be dis-comforted by the realities of Christmas.  Jesus was born under oppression, to a poor mother, in unsanitary conditions, and amidst suspicion regarding the legitimacy of his parentage.  Yet in this same Jesus we find very God and very man, a treasure that has been birthed to the world that will one day lay down his life for the renewal of his creation.  The miracle of Christmas, once it has been truly grasped, should lead to the outpouring of our lives on behalf of others.  We should be willing to face the grim statistics concerning world poverty and disease, giving up our quiet family evenings surrounding a fire, singing quiet hymns, resting content in our privilege.  We should be motivated to give, give, and give some more, in response to the abundance we have been given in Christ.  Slaughter reminds his readers that they are God's mission sent to the world to announce the gospel and to live in light of it.  We celebrate Jesus' birthday truthfully when we do the things that he commanded us to do.

    Slaughter has provided church leaders with a short, helpful resource that can stir discussion and inspire action surrounding the meaning of Christmas.  As you prepare for Advent and look forward to Christmas, consider picking up his book and let it inform your preaching, teaching, or your personal discipleship.  Each chapter is followed by brief discussion questions, and the book is stocked with pastoral examples that illustrate the kind of generosity Slaughter envisions a faithful church putting in to action.

    Pick up this book.  Read it carefully.  And lean in to Christmas with a spirit of adventure, with an openness to how God might transform your conceptualizations of what Christmas is and should be. Christmas should truly be a time of joy, thanksgiving, gratitude, and generosity.  Oftentimes it is not.  It is rather a time of stress, frustration, greed, and miserliness.  Slaughter, pointing to the New Testament, gives us an alternative.

    It is high time we pay attention.  The birth of God's Messiah demands nothing less.

    DISCLAIMER: I received this book free directly from Abingdon Press, first as an advance reader copy, and later in final form.  I'll be giving away a copy soon, so follow the blog for your chance to take a look for yourself.  As always, though I do at times review works that I receive for free, I am committed to writing truthfully regarding what I find.

    Friday
    Sep092011

    Book Review :: Why God Won't Go Away by Alister McGrath

    Alister McGrath, in Why God Won't Go Away: Is the New Atheism Running on Empty?, has provided a short, readable, and beneficial guide to the New Atheist movement, led by Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Samuel Harris, and Christopher Hitchens.  These thinkers have grabbed headlines, sold many books, appeared on the news, and keynoted important forums.  McGrath has given Christians a tool to understand, analyze, and refute their arguments, making a case for Christian belief and practice.

    Consisting of three major sections, McGrath first defines the New Atheism and systematically outlines the major arguments of its strongest proponents.  Secondly, McGrath treats three core objections voiced by these thinkers centered on religious violence, the reasonableness of faith, and the challenge of science.  Lastly, McGrath assesses the New Atheist movement, and forecasts its future based upon current trends within the movement itself, but also in reference to worldwide trends indicating the overall health and prevalence of religious belief.

    As a reviewer, it is important for me to disclose that I have had limited direct exposure to the writings of Dennett, Harris, and Hitchens.  Dawkins I have read.  Therefore, it is sometimes difficult for me to evaluate the merits of New Atheists arguments against religion here cited by McGrath, as well as the overall force of his response.  It does appear, however, that McGrath has been both direct and generous, making clear his points of disagreement while also allowing where these critics of religion may indeed have a point.  His tone is not vitriolic, as “New Atheist” fandom can be.  Rather, he indicates that he has both read and listened to the objections of these atheists, and based on his scientific, theological, and philosophical training, has sought to provide reasonable answers arising from clear logic, supported by other leading thinkers.

    This book, in my opinion, is very well worth reading.  McGrath helpfully articulates responses Christians can provide when engaging atheist friends and neighbors that are respectful, intelligent, and sophisticated.  He is also concise; this book can be read quickly as an introduction and overview to this modern debate.

    McGrath is right, I believe, in concluding that despite the loud objections of the New Atheists, the religious impulse will simply not go away.  Quite humorously, the seeds of the same fallacies atheists claim are rooted in religion are shown to be present within their own movement: violence, unreasonableness, and blind faith in scientism.  

    Looking toward the future, therefore, we can expect human beings to continue advocating both religion and irreligion, and hopefully, with tools like those provided by McGrath, will be willing to risk engaging in complex, honest, and generous discourse regarding the question of God.  Like McGrath, it is my hope that Christians will do their part to listen carefully and respond with gentleness and respect, having no fear of disagreement, and a boldness in speaking the truth.

    DISCLAIMER: I received this book in exchange for a review through Thomas Nelson Publisher’s BookSneeze program.

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