Category Archives: Book Review

IMAGINE AUGUSTINE AS YOUR PROFESSOR!

Some books are long, but relative to their length you don’t benefit much. Some books are short, but relative to their length you benefit greatly. Joseph Clair’s new book, On Education, Formation, Citizenship and the Lost Purpose of Learning fits in the latter category.  

In 120 pages Clair gives a crisp and thoughtful account of how higher education has lost its moral rudder. To make his case, Clair uses the always insightful and relevant, Bishop of Hippo: Augustine.

Instead of simply detailing the problem, Clair offers some suggestive and practical antidotes. I will mention just one as it is similar to something I’ve been thinking about. Clair mentions that teacher training ought to consider learning from “demanding vocations for inspiration and guidance—for example, Navy Seals, Jesuits, professional athletics—where a sense of identity and purpose provide a strong team spirit and where the results of a shared effort are judged on the basis of the whole community’s performance.”

There was one thing that made me reticent to recommend this book: the cost. That has now been rectified due to being out in a reasonable paperback.

 

MY FAVORITE DEAD PEOPLE…WELL THEIR BOOKS

Augustine, Confessions

Kempis, Of the Imitation of Christ

Pascal, Pensées

If you purchase this book, make sure to get the edition that is edited by A.J. Krailsheimer.  For some reason, Amazon is not allowing me to link to that edition.

Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress

Kierkegaard, Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing

Chesterton, Orthodoxy

Lewis: Loads to pick from, but I choose Surprised by Joy

 

THE GREATEST THEOLOGIANS

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Most Christians, even if they read on a regular basis, will pretty much choose books that help them live the Christian life. Books extolling “how to” live the Christian life dominate the landscape of bookstores because that is what the market wants.

There is nothing wrong per se with giving practical suggestions for how to live the Christian life. In his terrific introduction to Puritan theology, J. I. Packer underscores how Puritan preachers gave many applications in their sermons.

Applying the truths of Scripture is critical to being a Christian who is growing. James 1:22-25 makes this crystal clear:

But prove yourselves doers of the word, and not merely hearers who delude themselves.  For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks at his natural face in a mirror; for once he has looked at himself and gone away, he has immediately forgotten what kind of person he was. But one who looks intently at the perfect law, the law of liberty, and abides by it, not having become a forgetful hearer but an effectual doer, this man will be blessed in what he does.

The problem occurs when one’s reading is all about application. It is a problem, among other reasons, because we simply assume the author holds to a biblical framework. Sure the author may cite verses here and there, but are they handling Scripture responsibly? It takes biblical and theological discernment to determine whether that is the case.

What are the theological assumptions that the author holds? Those assumptions will inform how the author reads Scripture, and then makes his case for believers to apply his suggestions.

I am always on the lookout for thoughtful introductory books that help Christians think more carefully about their faith.

Gerald McDermott’s The Great Theologians: a Brief Guide is such a book. It covers eleven, perhaps the top eleven, most consequential theologians. The chapters are short, but meaty. The chapters are meaty, but accessible.

If you want to know more about the thinkers that are behind the “practical” books you are reading, McDermott’s book is recommended with gusto!

INTERVIEW WITH FLEMING RUTLEDGE

http://www.patheos.com/blogs/jesuscreed/2018/02/10/interview-fleming-rutledge/

The Amazon link to her terrific book can be found here:

https://www.amazon.com/Crucifixion-Understanding-Death-Jesus-Christ/dp/0802875343

Two caveats:

First, this book is a meaty, yet beautifully written book of 600 plus pages.  I made over 550 marginal notes in my copy.  I read and discussed it with a friend which made it a very rich experience.

Second, even though her book is rightfully heralded in “conservative” theological circles, there are some things that you might find objectionable like Rutledge giving room for the possibility of universal salvation.

TRUSTING GOD IS LIKE TRUSTING YOUR MECHANIC

Esther Meek wrote a terrific book entitled, Learning to Know: The Philosophy of Knowledge for Ordinary People.  In it, she describes how finding a reliable mechanic helped her better understand how we use certain clues to determine whether God as known in Jesus Christ is who He claimed. 

More generally, how do we know what we know?  It is an important branch of philosophy called epistemology. Too many people, including plenty of Christians, don’t think about how and why they think the way they do.

I read Meek’s book several years back.  At the time, my experiences with mechanics was mixed.  Some were okay while others had clearly taken advantage of me.

Enter Joe Ruiz.  Joe’s shop is here in Austin.  Two friends I implicitly trust told me how Joe kept their cars running. Many times, Joe told Gil or Mike that they did not need all the other “recommended” stuff other mechanics had tried to sell them.  

My experience with Joe mimics what Gil and Mike have experienced.  Our car (with 210,000 miles) recently lurched forward from a stop. I figured the transmission was going since it is the original one.  I took it into Joe.  Joe told me the catalytic converter may be responsible.  He thoroughly checked out everything else including the transmission.  All looked good.  He recommended adding five gallons of high octane fuel which I did.

Our car is back running just fine.  Joe charged $107 for all the work.  I was dreading a large expense that would have been challenging on our budget.

Meek’s argument that we pick up clues to determine whether God is trustworthy is inspired by the great philosopher of science, Michael Polanyi.  I highly recommend it!

And if you live in the Austin area, I know a great car mechanic!

https://www.amazon.com/Longing-Know-Esther-Lightcap-Meek/dp/1587430606/ref=sr_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1517415640&sr=1-2

NOT THE LEISURE YOU ARE THINKING OF!

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Our son, Chris, recently read this and loved it.  Since I’ve had it on my “to read” list for many years, I decided to give it a go.

As I say in the title, Pieper is not talking about leisure in the way that most people think.  All I will say here is that leisure relates to school, learning, and having time to ponder what really matters.

Most Americans don’t value the ancient idea (and ideal) of leisure.  We are driven, distracted, and intoxicated with the tangible signs of success.  We were created for so much more than these trivial pursuits. 

Let Pieper show you the way forward!

IMAGINING THE KINGDOM

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https://www.amazon.com/Imagining-Kingdom-Worship-Cultural-Liturgies/dp/0801035783

I’ve now read five of Smith’s books.  From time to time, I also read his essays.  He is a gifted wordsmith.

Since I’ve written elsewhere (see link below) about my main concern over what Smith has to say about liturgy, let me add that Imagining the Kingdom has many brilliant insights.  And ones I largely agree with. 

Smith does a better job clarifying his thesis in this book than he did in Desiring the Kingdom.  I remain disappointed that he does not address the formative role that mindfully engaged (mindfully is crucial here) meditation on Scripture has for spiritual health. 

GEORGE ORWELL’S BRILLIANCE

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https://www.amazon.com/Why-Write-Penguin-Great-Ideas/dp/0143036351

I have loved these Penguin Great Ideas books since the time when I first laid eyes on them.  Why I Write by Orwell was one of the Christmas gifts my wife gave me.  I finished it on the plane this past Thursday.  What a book!  Only 120 pages, but packed with arresting insights and keen observations.  Orwell is a master of both.

Here are a few samples:

On Neville Chamberlain

“His opponents professed to see in him a dark and wily schemer, plotting to sell England to Hitler, but it is far likelier that he was merely a stupid old man doing his best according to his very dim lights.”

The way we talk and think:

“It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language.  It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.”

And there is so much more in this funny, wise, and brilliant book!

 

 

BOOKS OF THE YEAR: 2017

Yes, many do these sorts of things, but I like book lists, so here you go:

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There are many things to like about this book, no matter which one of the big three traditions (Roman Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox) you belong to.

Chaput is a lucid writer who has clearly done his homework. His book ranges over many significant thinkers, past and present. His analysis of our cultural moment is sobering, but never gloomy. He well understands the indispensable virtue of Christian hope.

I read Dreher’s The Benedict Option, but find Chaput’s approach much more in keeping with the entire record of Scripture.

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https://www.amazon.com/How-Think-Survival-Guide-World/dp/0451499603

My interview with Alan Jacobs:

HOW TO THINK: INTERVIEW WITH ALAN JACOBS

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I’ve read several books on Benjamin Franklin, but this is the first on his sister.

Lepore brings all the things we have to expect from her writing, especially the telling detail.

Yes, it’s true. Women in the eighteenth century were discouraged from reading history. What’s the point? History reading is for those who serve in political and educational leadership. Since women couldn’t do those sorts of things in colonial America, what’s the point in them reading history? For a Christian this crass utilitarian notion of learning history is at odds with a faith that is historical in nature.

There are many terrific insights in this wonderfully conceived book.

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My interview with the author:
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https://www.amazon.com/American-Revolution-History-Library-Chronicles/dp/0812970411

My general rule that so far holds up is this: Take the total number of pages of a book and divide by two. If my marginal notes exceed that number, then the book, though I may have some serious disagreements with it, was worth reading.

In this case, Wood’s little book on the American Revolution is 166 pages long. My markings came in at over 150. This was an extremely worthwhile read.

I read a lot of American history, but am always looking for resources to better connect events and people. Wood’s book does not disappoint.

If you are looking for a short book to better understand the American Revolution along with a helpful explanation of the immediate years leading up to the Constitution, it is hard to imagine a better book.

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The modern notion of “politics” is much narrower than the ancient one. The modern idea thinks mainly of things like voting, lobbying for favorite causes, and those who govern.

Levin shows us in his terrific book that there is much more to politics. For example, one’s understanding of human nature and history dramatically affect how one understands political change. So-called progressives and so-called conservatives are given much to think about in this fine work.

Since I am late to the party in reviewing this book, let me close with one massive implication that came to me in reading this book and it deals with Christian theology. For those of us Christians who gladly hold to more conservative or orthodox (small o) theology, there is something terribly important we can learn from Edmund Burke. Burke believed that the best of tradition is true, but to convince more radical types like Paine, it was crucial to also show the beauty of tradition. If I were to grade us conservative Christians on how well we do in showing the beauty of truth, I would give us a very low grade.

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I’ve read several good books about President Jackson. None have been duds. All of them taught me fascinating and important things about Jackson.

Jon Meacham combines some of my favorite features for biography: wonderful wordsmithing, lucid prose, an eye for the salient details, and a nose for smelling out the proper drama.

If you are looking for a terrific biography of Jackson, this is the first place I would recommend.

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Taking a clue from Goldilocks some commentaries are too devotional, some too technical, and a smaller some are “just right.” Johnson has written one in that rarer, last category.

Johnson’s commentary has responsible interaction with the text, he does not dodge the tough issues (an occupational hazard for commentators), and the flow is terrific.

If the title of this book strikes you as odd, you will be convinced of its aptness after reading Johnson’s fine work.

Thanks to our pastor, Peter Coelho, who enthusiastically mentioned this book in some of his sermons!
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The biggest compliment I can give an author is that his or her book will be “part of our final library.” Let me explain.

Our library has about 3,000 volumes. We are constantly culling it, but we are also constantly getting new books due to library sales (good and cheap way to get great books) and publishers sending me books for possible review/interview with the author.

As I get older (I am 59) there is the need to keep culling. Fortunately, both our sons are readers so they will gladly inherit a bunch of books. Even so, there are books that should be parted with before I die. I don’t want our sons to have the burden of determining whether some books are worth keeping.

Mark Edmundson’s book, self and soul: a Defense of Ideals (neither self nor soul are capitalized) is beautifully written, insightful, and full of suggestive ideas.

It is clear that Edmundson has great respect for major religious figures, especially the Buddha and Jesus. It is not clear what Edmundson personally believes.

Regardless of whether one is religious or not, there is much to be gained by a close read of this fine book. There are many things I found fascinating, but since most don’t read lengthy Amazon reviews, I will underscore just one. A whole chapter is devoted to showing that Shakespeare’s writings don’t offer us much direction for how to be virtuous. Sure, you could extrapolate some implications based on the loathsome exploits of various characters, but there is little that goes beyond their own self-interest. Edmundson writes that characters in Shakespeare “generally speak because they are trying to get something. They want to enhance their images, improve their lots, speed their designs.” In this same paragraph Edmundson says, “When we quote them, we import their desires into our speech.” As a Christian, I greatly appreciate a writer who is not afraid to underscore the power of words to form and fashion us.

A gem of a book!

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I am coming to this terrific book about five years after its publication, so no long review here. I will say it is an extremely well done piece of work, both witty and wise, entertaining and educational. You will learn a lot about Scripture and yourself by reading it!

American Christians especially are in dire need of reckoning with this fine book.

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https://www.amazon.com/Destroyer-gods-Early-Christian-Distinctiveness/dp/1481304739

My interview with the author:

http://www.patheos.com/blogs/jesuscreed/2017/02/18/larry-hurtado-interview/

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https://www.amazon.com/Making-Racist-Southerner-Reflects-History/dp/0813938872

I will doing a longer review or perhaps interviewing the author later so will keep this brief.  Dew is a wonderful writer, eminent scholar of the Civil War, and offers us a candid report of how he came to grips with the racism of his boyhood.  A tough read, but sorely needed.

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My interview with the author:
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Brian Matthew Jordan’s new book addresses an issue that others have either missed or been mistaken about: the poor treatment of Union soldiers upon coming home.

Since the war was fought in the South, those civilians experienced the horrors up close and personal. Their soldiers came back to a very appreciative homeland.

Since the war was not fought in the North, those civilians largely wanted to move on to more “positive” realities rather then be reminded of what the so-called Civil War had wrought.

Jordan has done yeoman’s work on the research and writing. It is no wonder this book was a finalist for the Pulitzer prize.

There are some difficult and dark issues to wrestle through when it comes to the horrors of war. It is hard to imagine a better starting point than Jordan’s fine book.

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Commentaries on books of the Bible are not created equally. You have to be shrewd in what you consult. The better ones come in all different types from the devotional to the technical.

My favorite ones are those that combine great care with the text of Scripture, are well-written, and offer many connections to our own time and day.  Christopher Wright’s terrific work on Jeremiah is one of those. It is part of “The Bible Speaks Today” series (InterVarsity Press). Here is a taste:

“The reign of King Josiah was a time of great religious fervent and national resurgence. It was all very impressive. But what was God’s point of view? According to Jeremiah God sees a people who are a disappointment to God, who are being disloyal to their covenant relationship with God, who are already feeling the shock of disasters that foreshadow worse to come, and who are living in brazen denial and delusion. It is a frightening mirror to hold up to the people of God in any generation, with stark relevance to our own.”

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https://www.amazon.com/Questioning-Evangelism-Engaging-Peoples-Hearts/dp/0825444284/ref=pd_lpo_sbs_14_t_0?_encoding=UTF8&psc=1&refRID=SKPE034ACCMRES79GCF9

There’s nothing on evangelism quite like this book.  Stay tuned for my interview with Randy!