Category Archives: Book Review

WHY WE MUST BOTH HEAR AND READ THE BIBLE

It may seem odd to write a book about the value of not just reading, but also the importance of hearing the contents of a book. And not just any book, but the Bible.

Most people in the early church could not read. How did they grow in their understanding of God’s Word? How did they grow as disciples to ask the question that theologian Brad East recently posed? Answer: By hearing gifted readers.

These readers worked hard to emphasize the right places, pause at the right moments, and supply energy throughout. Their “performance” in the best sense of that word gave people understanding. Hearing the word read not only familiarized them with the material. It helped shape how they “felt” about the material. Quoting a wonderful line from Quintilian, Sandy reminds us that it is good to “add force to facts.” Even when people could read, the hearing of God’s Word created new levels of understanding.

If your church has been blessed with great readers of Scripture, then you know the power of hearing well-executed words. If you have not heard such readers, you are missing out on a considerable blessing and benefit.

Many of us know what it is like to hear a familiar passage from the Word of God read in such a way that it engenders all kinds of new insights. This deeper and more beautiful understanding is something that Sandy does a terrific job of explaining.

Each year, I get to read a lot of terrific books. Sandy’s book is one of the most edifying ones I have read in a long time. I will be recommending it with great enthusiasm.

TECHNOLOGICAL “PROGRESS” AND HUMANITY’S DECLINE

Bruce Brander, riffing on the assessment of the great Henry Adams:

“…the miracles of modern technology were only mistaken for progress. They amounted to humanity’s drawing unprecedented sums of energy from sources outside itself, which testified to rapid exhaustion of people’s inner energies and personal resources and their growing dependence upon nature’s reserves to sustain and enhance their lives. Technology merely masked decline, then served to speed it along.” (emphasis mine)

Brander’s book which has not nearly received the attention it deserves, is here:

 

THE LORD OF PSALM 23 AND AUTHOR’S RESPONSE TO MY CONCERN

Last year, I read Gibson’s terrific Living Life Backward. Ecclesiastes has a fond place in my heart.

I received a copy of this book from a friend who discipled me 47 years ago. I am now 66.

There are many, wonderful things I could offer about The Lord of Psalm 23, but I have one concern, but an important one in my estimation. It relates to what Gibson wrote on page 70 and 71 about the “steady advance of a soul unafraid to die…”

Like the author, I have been privileged to be with some as they are nearing death. I have seen the same thing that Gibson wrote of in these pages, but I also know believers who experienced terror at the end of life.

I Cor. 15:26 speaks of death being an enemy. We also have John Bunyan’s account of Christian’s dread as he makes his final trek to the Celestial City. And then there is John Donne and others I could add who were not always at peace with God.

[As mentioned in the subject line, the author responded favorably to my concern. It’s wonderful to see this kind of humility in action!]

Gibson wrote a beautiful and penetrating book full of important insights.

I am better for having read it!

OUR ANCIENT FAITH: LINCOLN, DEMOCRACY, AND THE AMERICAN EXPERIMENT

Allen Guelzo is one of my favorite historians. I recently reread his Fateful Lightning: A New History of the Civil War and Reconstruction. It brilliantly captures the sights and sounds of The Civil War.

If you want to know how Professor Guelzo writes and does his research, you can find it in my interview with him:

https://www.christianitytoday.com/scot-mcknight/2020/september/how-and-where-i-write-allen-guelzo.html

A productive scholar, Professor Guelzo has a new book. Our Ancient Faith: Lincoln, Democracy, and the American Experiment is only 171 pages long, but I made over 150 marginal notes.

When I started reviewing and interviewing authors I came up with “Moore’s Law of Worthwhile Reading.” It goes like this: Take the total number of pages in a book and divide by two. If my marginal notes exceed that number, then it was a worthwhile read. You can see by that calculus that Professor Guelzo’s more than made that cut.

If you were to ask whether I find Professor Guelzo’s writing optimistic or pessimistic, I would answer, “Neither.”

In Our Ancient Faith he certainly offers sober reflections on the fragility of the democratic experiment. His characteristically judicious treatment of Lincoln has all kinds of inherent warnings for us today.

However, I find Professor Guelzo, after reading four of his books, both realistic and genuinely hopeful. His hope is certainly a tough earned one. It is tethered to his Christian convictions, but not in the irresponsible way where the past is ransacked for talking points that fit one’s preconceived bias.

The flow of history also informs Professor Guelzo’s hope. He doesn’t sugarcoat the bad actors, nor does he gloss over the weaknesses and error of those like Lincoln whom he clearly respects. In a word, Professor Guelzo does not traffic in either hagiography or cynicism. Again, you get “thick realism with hope.” (HT: Will Willimon)

If you are looking for wise and beautiful reflections to make better sense of our own tumultuous time, I highly recommend Our Ancient Faith. And if you are not looking to make better sense of the present, then read Our Ancient Faith to see why you should!

 

PRACTICING THE WAY BY JOHN MARK COMER

I have benefitted from listening to John Mark’s sermons and interviews. He has much good to offer the church.

My expectations for this latest book were high, but I was disappointed.

It is not easy to convince others that a popular book may be lacking in some critical areas because the sheer success in sales makes most wonder what the heck you are yapping about.

Since I am sure John Mark would want me to register these thoughts as he seems to have a genuine desire to honor God, I plow ahead with this review.

There are certainly some wonderful insights and turns of phrase that we have come to expect from the author, but the punchy and provocative style failed to deliver this time. Here are some of my concerns:

On page 140 he approvingly cites John Wimber’s longing to do miracles. Like John Mark and Wimber, I believe miracles happen today. However, quickly citing Wimber’s famous question about being antsy to see miracles was careless. Wimber’s “When do we get to do the stuff?” meaning his eagerness to see miracles, needs more warning about the abuses inherent in such desires.

Comer says that he does not care much about whether you attend a megachurch or house church. He doesn’t think forms matter much. As he says, “…they each have pros and cons.” What matters is whether formation (or apprenticeship to Jesus to use his language) is taking place.

Here there needs to be an honest conversation that perhaps some forms stymie formation from taking place. I’m increasingly convinced that form is not neutral. Forms matter. For example, if your church is so big that it is impossible for the elders to be known by the body (I Pet. 5:1-3), then the form is keeping you from fulfilling the clear teaching of Scripture.

John Mark says that “Love is the metric of spiritual maturity, not discipline.” Again, I wish John Mark had written more. I wish he had brought Gal. 5:22,23 into this discussion where both love and discipline are fruit (not fruits) of the Holy Spirit. He leaves the reader assuming a false dilemma.

One final example comes from the short discussion on prayer (pp. 183-85). In an effort to encourage us to start praying, John Mark writes, “There is no bad way to pray and there is no one starting point for prayer.” I know John Mark believes the warning Jesus gives about “bad praying” in Matt. 6:5-15 is very much applicable today. Jesus makes it clear that there are in fact “bad ways” to pray.

 

CHRISTIAN PHILOSOPHY AS A WAY OF LIFE

There is a good chance that your assumptions about philosophy are mostly wrong. There is even a better chance that you believe little to no “practical” benefits come from thinking philosophically.

Well, Ross Inman is here to gently correct you on both counts.

In short compass (173 pages) Inman packs a lot in. He writing is consistently clear, and he offers wonderful illustrations along the way to drive his points home.

Inman is an enthusiastic salesman for the glories of thinking and living with a philosophical bent.

This is a wonderful book and a delight to read. I will be recommending it with gusto.

MEMOIR OF A GRATEFUL ACADEMIC

In 2016, I interviewed Professor Garrett Sheldon on his terrific book, The Philosophy of James Madison.

That interview can be found here: 

Staying Home on Election Day? What would James Madison Say?

Recently, Garrett asked about whether I would like to receive a copy of his memoir. Once it arrived, I immediately started to read.

Sometimes in lieu of a traditional book review, I will briefly list some of the things that I appreciated about a book. I am going to employ that approach here. I normally don’t alliterate, but it kind of came together this time:

Heart-breaking: The suicide of Garrett’s mom and the difficulties of dealing with his father.

Heart-warming: There are some wonderful people along the way that provide friendship and keep the author on a healthy trajectory.

Humorous: This book contains some funny anecdotes.

Heady opportunities: Garrett had the opportunity to brief a president of the United States, teach at some stellar schools around the world, and write books with top-notch publishers.

Humility: Even with the former reality, the author demonstrates a humility, even a healthy self-effacing attitude.

Holy-Spirit nimbleness: When Garrett found himself in some tough spots as a Christian, the Lord wonderfully provided him with the right words to say.

Whether you have interest in the life of an academic or not, you will be blessed by reading this story of God’s evident mercies and redemption.

 

FOUNDATIONS FOR LIFELONG LEARNING

I have read several books by John Piper. None were duds. Perhaps my favorites are When I Don’t Desire God and The Supremacy of God in Preaching.

This latest offering has all the things we have come to expect of a Piper book: God-centered, engaging style, and an earnestness that forces you to consider your own life in light of the Bible.

This is a terrific, and short book (only 171 pages) on what true, Christian learning looks like.

Highly recommended!

THE REFORMATION AS RENEWAL, CHAPTER 5

Most Christians find theology unimportant. Whether it is due to poor Christian education in churches, poor teachers, boredom borne of spiritual apathy, or any number of other things, there is no doubt that the lifelong study of theology in most American churches has gone the way of the dodo bird.

Philosophy is even less valued than theology which is saying something. So, imagine trying to make the case that certain distinctions in philosophy are critical for doing theology well! That is a herculean task that few can persuade others to consider.

As many of us have heard, you can’t get away from being a theologian. It’s not whether we are a theologian. It’s whether we are thinking well theologically or not. When it comes to philosophy, we may conclude that we are definitely not a philosopher. I will let Dallas Willard take it from here. Willard regularly heard people object to the importance of philosophy by saying, “I don’t need philosophy. I am a practical person.” Willard would respond, “They don’t realize that their view is a philosophy!”

I have not included the subtitle to this chapter at the beginning for one simple reason: most of you would stop reading. For those curious types who are still reading, here it is: The Via Moderna, Nominalism, and the Late Medieval Departure from the Realism of Thomistic Augustinianism, and its Soteriology.

Barrett’s discussion about what constitutes an orthodox view of salvation is extremely well-done, and very helpful. Barrett introduces us to the debate in a way that illuminates what the proper truths are to keep in mind as one navigates the most important issue of all: What is the biblical view of how one enters into a relationship with God?