Category Archives: Book Review

JOHN NEWTON ON POLITICS

I’ve just finished a terrific book on John Newton by Tony Reinke.  Several years back, I read Jonathan Aitken’s wonderful biography of Newton.  Tony’s book (interview with the author this fall) focuses more on themes that emerge from the letters of Newton. 

https://www.amazon.com/John-Newton-Disgrace-Amazing-Grace/dp/1433541815

https://www.amazon.com/Newton-Christian-Life-Live-Christ/dp/1433539713/ref=asap_bc?ie=UTF8

The section on politics has much food for thought.  If you know about Newton’s life, you know he was not anti-political.  His encouragement for his friend, William Wilberforce, to go into the political sphere, is one example.  However, Newton did understand better than most that getting consumed with politics has many traps.  Here are a few quotes from Newton:

“There is a peace passing understanding, of which the politicians cannot deprive us.”

At the beginning of the French Revolutionary Wars in 1793 Newton wrote, “The whole compass of my politics lies in Psalm 76:10”:

Surely the wrath of God shall praise you; the remnant of wrath you will put on like a belt.

“A nation’s safety lies more in the prayers of its people than in the fleets of its navy.”

DESTROYER OF THE gods

Here’s a snippet from my interview with Larry Hurtado of the University of Edinburgh:

Moore: It’s become somewhat of a self-evident truth that early Christianity only appealed to the down and out. Is that accurate to the historical record?

Hurtado: For several decades now that old notion has been discredited among scholars of early Christianity. Studies of the people named and described in earliest Christian texts show that, right from the earliest years, they included craftsmen, merchants, and owners of businesses. Of course, there were also slaves and poor among believers. By at least the second century, there were also believers from upper levels of Roman society. That upward progress socially is likely part of what prompted pagan sophisticates such as Celsus to attack Christianity so vehemently.

The full interview is here:

Larry Hurtado: An Interview

THE PHARMACIST OF AUSCHWITZ

Image result for THE PHARMACIST OF AUSCHWITZ

https://www.amazon.com/Pharmacist-Auschwitz-Untold-Story-ebook/dp/B01M8KHLF0

I have developed a “Moore’s Law of Reading” that helps me see whether a book was worth my time or not. I first count my marginal notes. I then check out the total number of pages of the book. If my marginal notes add up to at least half the number of pages, the book is either important (say something by Nietzsche whom I mightily disagree with), or a book that I appreciated very much. With The Pharmacist of Auschwitz, both categories are true.

Reading about the concentration camps is tough. For me, I kept avoiding books like Night by Elie Wiesel and Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl. I finally broke down and read both. I’m glad I did, but these kinds of books make me terribly sad and cry for justice. As a Christian, I find my sanity in the belief that God will one day make all things right. But I “live by faith and not sight” so the struggle for sanity in the interim is a daily battle.

I call Patricia (aka Trisha) Posner “Detective Posner” because she was relentless in accumulating the salient details in telling a little known story. The story revolves around a pharmacist named Victor Capesius. Capesius was involved in all kinds of heinous activities while working at the infamous Auschwitz camp.

Posner does a great job of teasing out the relevant details that make you see how such a “normal” person could be complicit in such barbarity. The ruthlessness of the Nazis is maddening to make sense of. Posner describes some of the ghoulish things the Nazis did, but does not overdo it. It’s not easy to tell a story full of dark realities and not get lost in all the depressing things that transpired. Posner does a good job of walking a tightrope between being true to the story, but not indulging the prurient interests of some.

There are many other things I appreciate about this book, but I will close with one more. Posner does a nice job of contextualizing the story of Capesius in the overall story of the Nazis. In telling the larger story of the Nazis you are reminded of how sinister their approach to life was. The insanity of the Nazis was demonstrated in many ways, like worshiping their dogs, but treating the Jews as less than animals. As a Christian, it reminded me of the perversity the apostle Paul speaks of in Romans 1.


I highly recommend this book, with the caveat lector that one be at least high school age.

DISCIPLESHIP

One of the maxims I developed years ago goes like this: As the number of leadership books increases, the number of available leaders decreases.  It’s a cheeky way of saying that principles and techniques don’t usually transfer to the real thing.  The same could be said for discipleship books.

I’ve been involved in discipling men for about forty years now.  I have also been the beneficiary of being discipled.  I’ve certainly read a number of discipleship books…plenty for a lifetime.

So when Zondervan sent me a (unsolicited) copy of The Disciple Maker’s Handbook I came pretty close to setting it aside.  I decided to give it a read. I’m glad I did. 

Harrington and Patrick do a terrific job of both offering practical instruction while peppering the book with thoughtful insights on discipleship.  This is an accessible book that novices to ministries of discipleship will find most helpful.  This kind of accessibility many times means something leans towards the superficial, but thankfully it is not the case with this book. 

One of the many strengths of this book are the various exhortations and insights on being intentional when it comes to discipleship ministries.

COTTON MATHER WITHOUT ALL THE BLATHER

Rick Kennedy is a professor of history and a sailing enthusiast.  In the video above, he is interviewed on his terrific, new biography of Cotton Mather.  Below is my brief review of Kennedy’s book:

This short biography by Rick Kennedy is simply superb.  All the major (and some minor) things that we want to know about Mather are included.  The writing is clean and compelling. 

You learn in short compass (145 pages!) that Mather had this incredible combination of gifts: scholar, pastor, visionary, and writer. 

Mather also had a wonderful skepticism towards what we typically call false dichotomies or binary traps.  Mather’s “trust, but verify” approach to legitimate supernatural events is wise and instructive for us today.

Oh yeah, and if you have the stereotype of Mather being responsible for the Salem Witch Trials, you will definitely need to read this biography.

REVOLUTIONIZING MEDICINE

https://www.amazon.com/Fever-1721-Epidemic-Revolutionized-Medicine/dp/147678308X/ref=cm_rdp_product

Coss’s book is like having three good, small scale biographies surrounded by the drama of a deadly disease. We get to know a doctor, Puritan preacher, and Founding Father.

Zabdiel Boylston, Cotton Mather, and Ben Franklin are characters most of us know in the order I listed them: from obscure to well-known. Coss makes it clear and quite compelling why we ought to know Boylston and Mather better. And even though I have read several books about Franklin, there were some fresh insights in this terrific book.

One other person who is not part of the aforementioned triumvirate, but looms large is James Franklin, the older brother of Ben. Coss does a terrific job of showcasing how much Ben benefited from the prickly and mercurial James. At times, I felt the author was a bit generous towards James, especially in downplaying how cruel he could be to Ben, but Coss makes his case very well.

 

SOULFUL AND SOILFUL SPIRITUALITY

Humble Roots: How Humility Grounds and Nourishes Your Soul

https://www.amazon.com/Humble-Roots-Humility-Grounds-Nourishes/dp/0802414591/ref=cm_cr_arp_d_product_top?ie=UTF8

This is not a “how to” book, which among other things, makes it so good.

Anderson’s uses her wide-ranging experience in gardening to tease out lessons on humility.

The author is vulnerable about her own foibles and failings, but not indulgent. Throughout her beautiful and winsome book, there are many wise reflections on what matters most.

A book to savor, especially for those who are tired of the typical formulaic approach in much of popular, Christian literature.

YOU MIGHT NOT KNOW JOHN

My Patheos review of a fine biography on John Knox:

Jane Dawson’s new biography of John Knox is being hailed as the definitive treatment we now have. Diarmaid MacCulloch says Dawson’s work “renders all his [Knox’s] previous biographies obsolete.”

Dawson teaches at the University of Edinburgh and is a noted authority on sixteenth-century Scotland and Calvinism. She had access to new sources, not the least of which are the papers of Knox’s confidant, Christopher Goodman.

There is much helpful background in Dawson’s fine account on what the culture and church were like in Knox’s day. Some authors can get a bit tedious in trotting out various details about the milieu in which their subject lived. The reader can easily lose sight of the subject under consideration. In Dawson’s case, the historical context is used judiciously so we are continually drawn to the life and impact of John Knox.

The Knox we get in Dawson’s account is full-throated. We see Knox doing heroic things, yet dogged with depression and doubts. We also learn that Knox had a keen awareness of his penchant to pride. So Dawson certainly doesn’t traffic in hagiography, yet it is clear she finds much to commend about Knox.

Dawson makes it clear that Knox was no Calvin. Of course, Calvin was no Knox. Like Calvin, Knox had great respect for the power of language, such as “adding a ‘double translation’ incorporating alternative meanings for some of the single Latin words to convey the complexity or nuances within the original text.” But Knox’s strongest suit was the spoken word. And the spoken word was powerful in a “non-literate” culture (notice that Professor Dawson does not say “illiterate”). As Dawson makes clear, Knox’s speaking gifts meshed well with the oral and aural culture he lived in.

The year 1543 was a critical one for John Knox. This was when Knox began to embrace some Protestant beliefs. As Dawson tells the story, we do not know whether Knox’s change of mind occurred incrementally or was more dramatic. Either way, Knox’s thinking was clearly moving away from the Catholic understanding he long took for granted.

If one were to choose which book of the Bible had the most impact on “famous” conversions, Romans would surely be at the top of the list. One thinks of Augustine, Luther, Wesley hearing Luther’s Preface to Romans, and Karl Barth’s commentary on Romans, which “fell like a bombshell on the theologians’ playground.”

Remarkably, it was not Romans that convinced Knox of the Protestant understanding of salvation by grace through faith. Rather, it was the gospel of John and most notably, the seventeenth chapter. Dawson writes that John 17 was the chapter that gave Knox the ability to understand “how justification, sanctification and predestination were linked.” Calvin’s teaching further enhanced Knox’s understanding of this seminal text. Dawson’s account of the massive influence John 17 played in moving Knox to a Protestant understanding of the Christian faith is as poignant as it is provocative.

Knox’s reverence for the Bible ran deep. Like his mentor, George Wishart, Knox believed that true ministers studied the Bible well and desired to impart what they learned. Though not directly involved like others, the new Geneva Bible translation thrilled Knox. The Geneva Bible would have incalculable influence on noted wordsmiths such as Shakespeare, Donne, and Bunyan.

Along with Scripture, God uses people, and this certainly was the case with Knox. Dawson’s handling of George Wishart’s influence on Knox provides fascinating detail and a model of sorts for spiritual formation. Wishart was unafraid to proclaim the gospel with clarity. His open denunciations of the false church of the Pope were matched by his sincerity. Knox was much impressed. Knox even mimicked his mentor’s approach to preaching. Issuing strong calls for people to repent was the fruit of George Wishart’s indelible imprint on Knox. Wishart’s martyrdom sealed his honorable reputation with Knox.

Another commonality between Wishart and Knox was their consistent stance of “no compromise,” especially when it came to the integrity of the church. Initially, Knox had high hopes with the rule of Edward VI, but the final part of his reign eventuated in a major disappointment. Dawson writes, “The initial elation created when demonstrably Protestant measures had been introduced was dissipated by the harsh realities of being in coalition with a political faction that needed to maintain its power. The political art of the possible was a concept Knox shunned and he treated compromise as another term for lack of zeal.”

With biography, there are always certain things we wish we knew. Biographers know this, and some take greater liberties to speculate or even slip in a detail that is impossible to know. Here Dawson shows scholarly restraint. For example, while describing a period of time early on when Knox may have been lacking in courage, Dawson writes, “In later life Knox possibly felt embarrassed…” Dawson keeps her account moving with the particulars we can be confident of not the ones we wish we had.

Like his mentor Wishart, Knox believed the Roman Catholic Church was hopelessly corrupt. Knox didn’t flinch in saying the Catholic Church “was worse than the Church of the Jews when it condemned Christ to death.” These were dangerous times to be a Protestant minister, which is what Knox was by 1547. To be a Protestant minister meant carrying “a suspended death sentence.”

It is impossible to speak of John Knox without including his famous battles with Mary Tudor, Queen of England (latter dubbed “Bloody Mary”) and Mary, Queen of Scots. Knox declared that Mary Tudor was an “open traitoresse to the Imperiall Crown of England” who cleverly under an “Englyshe name she beareth a Spaniardes herte.” The latter charge was directed at Mary’s marriage to Philip of Spain.

Knox’s disagreements and difficulties with Mary, Queen of Scots were also substantial. As Dawson writes, Knox “told Mary she was ignorant and deluded and failed to recognize the plain word of God.” But Dawson argues that the caricatures of their famous feud do not adequately capture the complexity of their relationship. Though Dawson makes clear that Knox retained his prophetic role, he was not opposed at times to a more conciliatory posture. Consider these surprising words Knox communicated to Mary: “I pray God, Madam, that ye be as blessed within the Commonwealth of Scotland, as ever Deborah was in the Commonwealth of Israel.”   Another time in a most unlikely partnership, Knox and Mary were a tag team to convince the Earl and Countess of Argyll to not get divorced. Dawsom comments that Knox and Mary could get along “provided there was no religious element.”

Knox loved purity and truth. It is no wonder then that he said Calvin’s Geneva was “the most perfect school of Christ.” The diligence Calvin displayed in battling the “Libertine” group’s influence was something Knox admired in the great Reformer. In this, Calvin mirrored what Knox found so noble about George Wishart.

John Knox’s marriage to Marjorie was a happy one. Like Sarah was to Jonathan Edwards, Marjorie was a true partner in ministry. She drew the favorable attention of no less than John Calvin. Marjorie had a mature understanding of Scripture and was well educated. She gave John Knox two sons and three daughters who survived childhood, though she did not live long herself. John Knox was devastated and sunk into depression when his beloved wife of only five years died.

Knox’s relationships outside the home were also critical to his well-being, especially when he struggled with depression. No one played a bigger role as encourager and counselor than Christopher Goodman. Knox was certainly a leader with considerable gifts. However, like the apostle Paul who needed Titus to “comfort him in his depression” (II Cor. 7:6, NASB), Goodman was an indispensable ballast to Knox’s battles with melancholia.

According to Dawson, Knox was best suited to lead during a crisis. Dawson brings up Churchill as a modern day version of this type of leader. However, as is sometimes the case, one’s greatest strength may carry an attendant weakness. Dawson observes that when “peace and diplomacy” were sorely needed Knox would not be the best person to tap as the leader.

It is not surprising to see the enthusiasm for Dawson’s, John Knox. It is engaging, lucid, comprehensive, peppered with fascinating details, and an ennobling account of a major figure of the nascent Protestant movement.

 

 

MARCHING HOME TO UNCERTAINTY, BOREDOM, AND A LACK OF APPRECIATION

https://www.amazon.com/Marching-Home-Union-Veterans-Unending/dp/0871407817

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.

BOOKS OF THE YEAR

Reading is critical to what I do, but more importantly, who I am.  My reading is divided into various categories: reading related to a writing project, reviews and/or interviews with authors, and other miscellaneous books that are significant to be conversant on.  There are many classics that I have on my list (yes, I keep many lists), so books coming off the presses today are scrutinized pretty closely.

As I get older (58 now), I find myself rereading books which have made the biggest impact on me.  This means that I am getting pickier with my new selections with each passing moment which is not a bad thing.

Instead of giving a large list, let me mention seven books all published in 2016 which I found quite good.

The very best for the entire year was a three way tie with MAKING SENSE OF GOD by Tim Keller, SILENCE AND BEAUTY by Mako Fujimura, and AMERICAN PHILOSOPHY: A LOVE STORY by John Kaag.

So here are my seven favorites in no particular order…

SAVING THE BIBLE FROM OURSELVES: LEARNING TO READ AND LIVE THE BIBLE WELL by Glenn Paauw.

https://www.amazon.com/Saving-Bible-Ourselves-Learning-Read/dp/0830851240/ref=cm_rdp_product

My interview with the author is here:

Saving the Bible from Ourselves

AMERICAN PHILOSOPHY: A LOVE STORY by John Kaag

https://www.amazon.com/American-Philosophy-Story-John-Kaag/dp/0374154481/ref=cm_rdp_product

John Kaag is a philosopher, but don’t let that scare you away from his writing, at least not with this book.

American Philosophy: a Love Story is remarkable twin tour of a long abandoned library and the human heart. Kaag is a candid diagnostician of his own interior life with all its complexities and contradictions.

I’ve been reading some of Kaag’s interlocutors for some time, especially Ralph Waldo Emerson. As a Christian, I disagree with much of what Emerson wrote, but he makes me wrestle with important issues in ways that make me a better Christian…at least a better thinking Christian.

Kaag is vulnerable about his own personal struggles and path to happiness. Like Emerson, I don’t agree with Kaag’s philosophy of life, but reading about his pilgrimage to greater sanity was fascinating and time well spent.

This is a brilliantly conceived and exceedingly satisfying read. If scholars like Kaag wrote more books like this one there would be a whole lot more interest in philosophy!

I think a wonderful movie could be made from this book…at least a well-crafted documentary.

PURSUING HEALTH IN AN ANXIOUS AGE by Bob Cutillo

https://www.amazon.com/Pursuing-Health-Anxious-Gospel-Coalition/dp/1433551101

Dr. Bob Cutillo has written a book that Andy Crouch describes this way: “Perhaps once a year, if I am lucky, I encounter a book that addresses a supremely important topic and does so in a supremely helpful way. This is such a book…”

Cutillo is a medical doctor. He serves in various capacities: as professor at a major university, teaching at an evangelical seminary, and providing compassionate care to those on the margins of society.

How should we understand health? Well, it depends on your frame of reference. If you believe that Jesus has conquered death, then you will answer that question very differently from those who don’t.

Cutillo is not just a “science guy,” though he certainly has great competence there having earned his MD from Columbia University. Cutillo also loves great literature and philosophy. He brings in wonderful insights from wide-ranging readings of great books. This offers a real model of responsible and competent integration. I’ve read other books that seek to integrate from various disciplines, but few pull it off as well as Cutillo.

MAKING SENSE OF GOD: AN INVITATION TO THE SKEPTICAL by Timothy Keller

https://www.amazon.com/Making-Sense-God-Invitation-Skeptical/dp/0525954155

My review can be found here:

Tim Keller’s Newest

DEEP WORK; RULES FOR FOCUSED WORK IN A DISTRACTED WORLD by Cal Newport

https://www.amazon.com/Deep-Work-Focused-Success-Distracted/dp/1455586692

Here is my interview with the author:

Cal Newport: Focused Success in a Distracted World

MEDIEVAL WISDOM FOR MODERN CHRISTIANS by Chris Armstrong

https://www.amazon.com/Medieval-Wisdom-Modern-Christians-Authentic/dp/1587433788/ref=cm_rdp_product

My interview with the author is here:

http://www.patheos.com/blogs/jesuscreed/2016/07/16/medieval-wisdom-for-modern-christians/

SILENCE AND BEAUTY: HIDDEN FAITH BORN OF SUFFERING by Makoto Fujimura

https://www.amazon.com/Silence-Beauty-Hidden-Faith-Suffering/dp/0830844597/ref=cm_rdp_product

I am writing a book on how to trust God in the midst of suffering. Recent reads were Endo’s Silence followed by Makoto Fujimura’s Silence and Beauty. I made over 200 marginal notes in the pages of Endo’s Silence. It is an extremely important work for Christians to digest deeply.

Usually a commentary on a great book may be helpful and illuminating, but hardly of the caliber of the classic. This book may break this regular rule.

Fujimura’s reflections on Endo’s classic work are simply stunning. Silence and Beauty is a wonderful companion to Endo’s Silence. In fact, I would argue that Fujimura’s Silence and Beauty is indispensable to reading Endo’s work. Silence and Beauty takes you into the heart of Japanese culture and rituals. It helps you understand why Christianity is such a threat to its cultural ethos.

Silence and Beauty is wonderfully conceived and full of compelling insights. Highly recommended.