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    Entries in book reviews (5)

    Tuesday
    Apr222014

    Book Review :: Soul Keeping by John Ortberg

    Living in a time of increased secularization has numerous byproducts, and among them is neglect of the soul. The immaterial or spiritual dimension of the human person has become a mystery, and while soul-language endures, questions such as "How is it with your soul?" are often met with perplexity and mystification. Our thinking concerning the soul is quite limited, and for those suffering from deepest distress at our spiritual core, we lack wisdom concerning where to turn.

    John Ortberg, in his latest book Soul Keeping: Caring For the Most Important Part of You ($5.99 on Kindle today), calls our attention to the soul, something he claims we acknowledge yet do not understand. We do live during a time when the soul is greatly neglected, even among Christian people.  Therefore, when a pastor or leader steps forward and offers us wisdom, we should evaluate their words first, and then, where found to be true, put them in to practice.

    I've read many John Ortberg books, and I think this is one of his best. It is personal and it is sophisticated. It is a readable work, one that I enjoyed. The book begins with a parable, with Ortberg telling us of a stream and its keeper. In the story there is a village, seated at the base of a mountain. High atop the trail, there is an elderly man who travels up and down the stream, keeping it free from debris or any substance that could pollute its waters. As long as the stream is well kept, the village prospers and enjoys the benefits. When the stream is neglected, all suffer. And Ortberg tells us the soul is like the stream, and we are like the keeper. We must do those things which lead to health. The first priority is reconciliation and a sustained relationship with the one for whom our souls are made--God himself. This is a vivid and practical image that is carried throughout the book.

    The book consists of a three-part construction. Ortberg explains what the soul is, and examines our lack of knowledge concerning this most fundamental part of the human person. He then explores what the soul needs--a keeper, a center, a future, fellowship with God, rest, freedom, blessing, sanctification, and gratitude. And finally, Ortberg explores the experience of desolation--known by many as the dark night. In complementary fashion, he also examines consolation, and the peace that comes when a soul is at rest, filled with joyous confidence in God.

    As someone who reads a great deal of literature on Christian spiritual formation and the care of the soul, I recommend this book. As I have said, it reads easy and contains engaging personal stories and helpful insight. For those who have read Dallas Willard, you will see how Ortberg points to and develops themes within his work. But you will also see Willard as a mortal, a fellow disciple of Jesus who loved God deeply and was transformed by grace, yet not without his flaws and struggles. Ortberg also does well with theological and biblical material that helps the reader to understand the soul, and to turn to Christ for healing.

    Other reviewers have noted that Ortberg often speaks of his mentor, the Christian philosopher Dallas Willard. Some found the frequency with which an anecdote, saying, quotation, or experience with Willard makes its way in to these pages an annoyance, and I can see how this might be the case. As I have grown familiar with Willard's work and even attended a few conferences where he spoke in his final years, one of the trends I observed was for his interlocutors to wonder at his brilliance during question and answer sessions, or to tell stories of conversations where Willard's profundity required restatement or simplification in order to be understood. Many of Ortberg's quotations of Willard fall in line with this trend. Many Willard quotes are followed by, "Huh?"

    I happen to agree that Dallas Willard is an incomparable mind, and an unconventional thinker. His approach to Christian spiritual formation and the life of discipleship has been revolutionary for my own thought and practice, as it has been for countless others. In my opinion, Ortberg would have done well to let Willard's brilliance speak for itself, without drawing attention to his own slowness to comprehend his offhanded remarks or carefully presented teachings. But that is a matter of taste, not a matter of substance or value concerning Ortberg's overall work. Any reviewer that would downgrade their evaluation of this book because of an annoyance arising from this aspect of the presentation must not have paid ample attention to the lessons Ortberg does in fact offers us, whether by way of Willard, or through his own pastoral experience and theological reflection.

    The wise reader will not finish this book and consider it as an end in itself, but will look beyond it to the God who created the soul, and has made available every resource in Jesus to bring about its restoration and healing.

    Saturday
    Aug252012

    Short Book Review :: Four Views on the Spectrum of Evangelicalism

    Four Views on the Spectrum of Evangelicalism (Counterpoints: Bible and Theology) is an important book for evangelicals and non-evangelicals alike. Zondervan should be applauded for this project.

    I found this book informative and instructive. As the reader might expect, four contributors were asked to write essays representative of four diverse strands within evangelicalism, with each essay being followed by a response from the other three contributors. This review will not focus on the specific arguments of Kevin Bauder (Fundamentalism), Albert Mohler (Confessional), John Stackhouse (Generic), and Roger Olson (Postconservative). Instead, I will keep my comments more general, and more brief.

    The contributors were instructed to focus their essays on three concerns within evangelicalism: Christian cooperation (i.e., Evangelicals and Catholics Together and the Manhattan Declaration), views on doctrinal boundaries (i.e., open theism and the Evangelical Theological Society), and the gospel, with a focus on penal substitutionary atonement.

    Each author focuses on these issues to varying degrees, so do not expect a fully developed treatment of each issue within each essay, but instead expect each argument to focus on the issue deemed central and vital by that particular author. Mohler and Bauder focus more energy on the gospel itself, and the accompanying doctrinal boundaries that should come to define true evangelicalism. Stackhouse and Olson focus on cooperation within the movement itself, and the doctrinal basis for evangelicalism's diversity.

    The essays shed light, and generate heat. Each author illuminates the views associated with their perspective, and often generate critique or highlight friction points between their own approach and that of their fellow evangelicals. Thus, I found each essay instructive and challenging in its own right, and the ensuing response essays helped to underscore differences as well as points of agreement. This book represents dialogue and conversation well done among those with a common commitment to Christ, and an honesty concerning the differences that exist among evangelical Christians. In that respect, it is an edifying work, clarifying and building up, convincing and persuasive. My own views on evangelicalism align most closely with that of John Stackhouse, though I found myself appreciating Bauder, Mohler, and Olson as well.

    If you wish to learn more about evangelicalism, this book will help.

    Sunday
    Apr012012

    Quick Review :: The Voice New Testament

    I have a deep love for the Bible.  From time to time, I am asked for my thoughts and opinions on various translations.  I often respond by asking what the reader is looking for.  Accessible language?  Scholarly precision?  Word-for-word translation?  Age specific?  Helpful notes and study helps?  Binding, aesthetics, layout, and feel?  Reputation?  Inclusive language?  Paraphrase?  The list goes on, and on, and on.

    There is no shortage of Bibles available for purchase, and in our family, we have a host of Bibles adorning our shelves.  The Voice New Testament: Revised & Updated, a fresh translation that has been produced by the Ecclesia Bible Society, came my way via Thomas Nelson publishers.  Claiming to be a blend of scholarly excellence and prosaic/poetic gloss, The Voice brings new life to old stories, invigorating the imagination through the combined use of the academic and the commonplace.

    I have been reading through this translation of the New Testament this year in addition to my regular readings in the NIV and NRSV.  I particularly enjoy the italicized poetic additions to the translations.  Due to the typesetting, these are easily distinguished as paraphrase or interpretive departures from the koine Greek.  I do find a few of the interpretative choices a little clunky (consistently replacing Messiah with "Anointed One", and references to Christ as "the liberating King").  But I acknowledge that this discomfort is due largely in part to my familiarity with other translations, and I am sympathetic to these choices, as the translation team surely deployed these phrases consistently to instill in the reader the importance of specific theological themes they feel have been neglected.

    In addition to the translation itself, the brief book introductions and the study notes are helpful, and are written in clear, accessible language.  

    I would recommend The Voice as an alternative translation for study and devotional reading.  Take a step back, read through it as though encountering the text for the first time, and fall in love with the story of the New Testament once again.

    Addendum

    I had a conversation with Stephen Proctor regarding The Voice last week.  Here is our exchange: 

     

    Thursday
    Dec292011

    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.

    Thursday
    Dec222011

    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 Amazon.com.