Author Archives: Jerry H

About Jerry H

I am first and foremost a Christian. I am a preacher. I am a husband and a dad. I love reading, writing, woodworking, collecting stamps, playing guitar, listening to music, baseball, golf, NASCAR (24!), blogging, studying, learning, green olives, cashews, Red Delicious apples, Chocolate, and swiss cheese. I am anxious for the Return of Jesus to redeem those of us who are waiting. Thanks for stopping by.

Book Review: Every Man’s Battle

Every Man’s Battle

WaterBrook Press

By Stephen Arterburn & Fred Stoeker

232 pages +study guide

I’m going to approach this review slightly differently than I would normally approach a review. That is, it will not be as long or detailed as it normally would be because this sort of book really does not lend itself to the sort of criticism I would normally level against a book. After all, who can argue with the need for sexual purity, especially among Christians for whom it is expected?

That said, I cannot really criticize this book because, as the cover boasts, the series of which it is a part has sold a whopping 3 million copies (and I assume that number continues to grow as people learn about the series and as more and more people finally figure out that they are sexually out of control.) Again, who can argue? So I have only a couple of thoughts I would bring to the table for discussion and, as always, these are my perceptions which will necessarily differ from the perceptions of others. This is a good thing because it provokes conversation.

It is sort of difficult to read this book without being confronted with the fact that yes, indeed, we all have issues when it comes to purity. It is true, as the authors say, ‘impurity is a habit.’ I was confronted by this page after page. Personal anecdote: I went back to graduate school two years ago at a relatively local university. I am 41. Enough said. Purity issues are complicated and difficult, and it is terribly easy to fall into the habit of taking a peak or hoping for just a glimmer or hoping, secretly of course, that the young coed, easily half my age, forgets she is wearing a short skirt or remembers, as the case may be.

Young coeds on a university campus abound in mischief when it comes to clothing or the lack thereof. I will never cease to be amazed at how creative girls/women can be with the exposure of flesh—and frankly, it does not require as much imagination as they expend. I very much agree with the authors that I have to make a decision to be sexually pure and that it is not just a matter of graduating from the university and no longer being tempted; the temptations will be all around, every day.

I also agree that we need to have a shield or protection. I found mine one day when I was reading the daily office: “I will conduct the affairs of my house with a blameless heart. I will not look with approval on anything that is vile” (Psalm 101:2-3). I have to focus myself in the mornings because typically, for some reason, my weakness is in the morning. In the mornings I have to be alert for that is when the enemy prowls around my head. We have to be careful and alert to the tricks of the enemy.

A couple of criticisms that are more along the lines of style and not so much content. First, I think maybe the book needs a little updating or generalizing. It was almost amusing to read about lusting over billboards, female joggers, beer and bikini commercials, and receptionists (Chapter 11, elsewhere). Maybe in California female joggers are a problem, but not so much where I live. It could be that the authors merely want us to generalize and that space prevented them from saying things like: your hot neighbor across the street while she cuts the grass in her white t-shirt, the really fine looking Facebook friend who is always changing her profile picture, or the 20 year old coed walking around campus in her short skirt and high-heels. But again, that might just be me.

I also thought the whole shtick about ‘playing the dweeb’ is kind of corny too. And so too the whole thing about being a horse and allowing women to ‘approach your corral.’ The authors write, concerning Dweebman, “Show her that her initial attraction to you was a ridiculous mistake. Choose to be boring, and do it fastidiously. Later, when she’s no longer attracted to you, you can be your normal, interesting self again” (178). Or you could just be honest and say, “I’m taken—since, evidently, the wedding band did not clue you in.”

Finally, the notion that I should refer to my wife as a ‘ewe lamb’ is patently absurd. If I told my wife something like that, she’d either vomit or punch me or both (not to mention the fact that I believe this seriously misses the point of the parable Nathan told David). I think there are better ways to love our wives and respect them and care for them without resorting to such a childish image.

This book is clearly written for men who have already lost the battle and want to recoup something of their identity. However, and this is key, if sexual purity is a matter of habit—and I believe they are correct on this point—then there is no reason whatsoever that young, single men cannot read this book and benefit greatly. Habits are formed early and it is easier to prevent a habit than it is to get out of a habit. Furthermore, the best quote in the book sums up the entire point: “Spiritual maturity is always dictated by our willingness to sacrifice our own desires for the desires of others or for the interests of the kingdom” (quoting Rick Joyner, page 187).

And here is the point: for the Christian man, sexual purity is about spiritual maturity. We are meant to grow up and leave behind those things from our childhood—whether it is sexual, emotional, or whatever and if reading 200 plus pages about two men’s struggles with masturbation and ogling does not help heighten the purity and stretch the maturity, then I do not know what else will. Seriously.

I recommend this book to married men, Christian or otherwise, and also to single men who want to develop good habits before bad habits consume and destroy them.

4.5/*****

By this Book from Amazon.com

Every Man’s Battle online

To comply with new regulations introduced by the Federal Trade Commission, please mention as part of every review that Waterbrook Multnomah Publishers has provided you with a complimentary copy of this book for review purposes.

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Marriage and Family

The Secret of Indigo Moon by GP Taylor

The Dopple Ganger Chronicles: The Secret of Indigo Moon

by GP Taylor

291 pages

Tyndale House Publishers, inc

The Secret of Indigo Moon might have been better if I had read the first volume in the series The First Escape. Nevertheless, volume 2 in The Dopple Ganger Chronicles series of books was a quick, delightful read. I enjoyed it first to last and I am looking forward to reading the other volumes in the series.

This was a quick read for me. I read it in one sitting on Saturday May 14, 2011. The pace was brisk and the pages full of art/comic pages really helped keep the pace at that brisk level. This book is a combination of typeset pages and graphic novel and picture book. The pages are nice and thick and the hardcover book is sturdy and has a nice gloss to it. I especially enjoyed how some pages were white ink on black background and other pages were the opposite.

I like reading children’s literature. I have read the entire Lemony Snicket’s Series of Unfortunate Events and the entire Harry Potter series (twice). I have also spent considerable time reading C.S. Lewis’s fiction (Narnia, Space Trilogy) so I’m no stranger to reading children’s fiction and enjoying it. The Dopple Ganger Chronicles is a fun idea and The Secret of Indigo Moon is a fun story.

In my opinion, this would be a good book to get into the hands of some junior high or advanced elementary school kids. Adults will find it predictable and will have very little difficulty figuring out what is going on from beginning to end, but that will not detract from the sheer enjoyment of getting lost in a story on a rainy Saturday afternoon. (And there is nothing wrong with adults reading children’s literature.)

The art is well done. It is not tacky and does not detract from the story but enhances it time and time again. There are some genuinely scary moments and even more genuinely funny moments. And there is a lot of action—from the first page to the last, the book is action packed. The characters hardly ever stop to breathe. There is suspense (is Miss Rimmer a ‘bad guy’? Who is the strange Lord Gervez?) All the elements that make a story compelling are contained within the pages and lead up to a satisfying, if incomplete, ending (there is already published a third installment The Great Mogul Diamond).

If I have a complaint it is this: Madame Raphael who is some sort of angelic being. It is very difficult to include angelic figures in literature (because we know so little about angels) and I am not, generally speaking, a fan of it. Frankly, we moderns (or postmoderns) know too little about angels who are, by biblical admission, ‘ministering spirits sent to serve those who will inherit salvation’ (Hebrews 1:14). Is that enough information to cast them as characters in our fiction? From a strictly theological point of view, this (Hebrews 1:14) can mean one of two things. On the one hand, it could mean angels serve those who are already destined for salvation with no regard for those who are not ‘among the living’ just yet (that is, Christians). On the other hand, it could mean that angels serve even those who are not yet ‘in the camp’ but will be some day so that the angels are kind of leading them in that direction (that is, not yet Christians but soon or later will be).

I’m not a fan of angels being characters inside of fiction for this reason. It seems hopeful at best and misunderstanding at worst to pair them (angels) with characters who are not explicitly those who ‘will inherit salvation’. Yet maybe that is God’s prerogative.  Those who read books theologically (as I do) can sort of gloss over such things or re-interpret them through another lens. Children might not be so thoughtful. I might be over-sensitive on this part and perhaps I need to give the author a bit more poetic license; that much I will concede. For the sake of getting the book into people’s (children’s) hands, I suppose there has to be certain vagaries. My hope is that this ‘new C.S. Lewis’ will not always feel compelled to be so vague.

“Some people have a desire to search for the truth, and others do not. The Companion is all around us, yet many people go through life unaware of who he is” says Madame Raphael. That might be true, but I suppose as far as the Dopples and the Ganger are concerned, we will have to read other volumes to see how far they are willing to go in search of the truth—and what exactly the author perceives as the truth.

I recommend this book to advanced elementary students through adults.

****/5

Get the first chapter of The Secret of Indigo Moon

G P Taylor Official Website

The Dopple Ganger Chronicles

The Dopple Ganger Chronicles on Facebook

Buy The Secret of Indigo Moon at Amazon

**To comply with new regulations introduced by the Federal Trade Commission, please mention as part of every Web or Amazon review that Tyndale House Publishers has provided you with a complimentary copy of this book or ARC.

Leave a comment

Filed under Children's Books, fiction

Book Review: The Final Summit by Andy Andrews

The Final Summit

By Andy Andrews

243 Pages, including Reader’s Guide

Thomas-Nelson Publishers, Hardcover

The Final Summit is a different sort of book than I normally read. To be sure, I do not spend a great deal of time reading fiction so when I opened this book and began to read it, I was, indeed, surprised. This is no ordinary book of fiction; this is no ordinary book at all.

The Final Summit is the sequel to Andrews’ book The Traveler’s Gift which featured the character David Ponder (I believe my details are accurate, although I have not read The Traveler’s Gift). Fortunately for me, Andrews reviews the former story in chapter 1 as the main character, Ponder, rehearses for the reader his former journeys. On the former journey, Ponder, met several people from history and each one gave Ponder an important, pithy, saying by which he might rebuild his broken life.

Along the way, he met Harry Truman, King Solomon, Joshua Chamberlain, Christopher Columbus, Anne Frank, Abraham Lincoln, and an arch-angel named Gabriel (whom I presume to be the same angel named Gabriel  we find in the Bible). Each of these historical persons gave Ponder a bit of wisdom that he refers to as the Seven Decisions for Success. The Final Summit follows much the same pattern that The Traveler’s Gift followed: Ponder is at the end of his ropes again, the archangel Gabriel makes another appearance, and various people from history show up to guide Ponder on his way.

The gist of the story is that the world is on the edge of destruction and Ponder, guided by a Virgil like Gabriel, convenes a meeting of the (dead, historical) minds and they begin to talk about how they are going to save this fragile world—as if the world needs any more saving; as if we have the capability to talk ourselves into a solution. We are also reminded of how quickly the world is slipping away by the most conspicuously placed hourglass.

Winston Churchill serves as a startling doppelganger to Ponder and, frankly, is rather annoying. Given that this is my first introduction to Andrews’ writing, the Churchill character greatly disappointed me.

I also found Gabriel’s manner of speech to be inane. He refers to everyone he speak to by their first and last names. This might be a clever literary device, but it was sort of lost on me. So Ponder is not Mr Ponder or David, but David Ponder; Churchill is Winston Churchill. It’s a small thing, and maybe it is explained in the other book. I still would find it annoying.

My third complaint is the utter lack of diversity in the book. Well, utter, is a bit strong. There is one black man who gets a voice in the book and that is George Washington Carver. There is only one woman, Joan of Arc—seriously? (Other characters include Abraham Lincoln, Eric Erickson, King David, and Joshua Chamberlain.) In two books, drawing on nearly 2000 years of history and the entire world, it is absolutely amazing to me that only one black man and two women made the cut. It is also rather amazing that a certain man from Nazareth failed to make the cut.

It’s kind of hard to imagine a narrower world than the one created in this book. To be sure, the ‘audience’ participating in the story includes a great many women and people of minority status. Still, the plot turns on those who are chosen to share their wisdom with Ponder in the hopes of saving the nearly dead world. The ideas shared by the ones chosen are great ideas and there is nothing wrong with the ideas. (I do have a slight problem with the notion that everyone included in the story has somehow or other been ‘saved’, but that’s a theological argument I’m not prepared to defend in this review.) The problem is that I’m just not so sure this is good fiction.

Each chapter was well written. I especially enjoyed chapter 9 and the discussion of depression, Churchill’s ‘black-dog,’ and self-discipline. This was probably the best chapter in the book and it is a fair representation of the style of the rest of the book. Great discussions take place and much of what is said is wise and beautiful—well worth the read.  The conversations, placed in the mouths of historical persons, make great fodder for conversation and combined with the reader’s guide could be useful even in a small group setting or a reading circle. Readers are also provided with some great background information—in particular I found the story of Eric Erickson fascinating.

“And success in any endeavor where self-discipline is involved boils down to this question: can you make yourself do something you don’t particularly want to do in order to get a result you would like to have?” (156).

This is wonderful, sermon-worthy stuff: “Unless you change how you think and how you act, you will always be who you are” (161). The book gave me a lot to think about and it will for anyone who reads it. In this regard, the book reads like a fictionalized Tony Robbins or Stephen Covey and maybe it is supposed to. Those who find motivational speaking or writing enjoyable will be wowed by this book.

This is a short, easy read. It was fun and entertaining. I have grave doubts as to the solution and as I was waiting for the end, even anxiously awaiting the end, I found it profoundly disappointing and anticlimactic. I tried really hard to like this book. I tried really hard to like the premise. I tried rally hard to find the conclusion satisfying and rewarding. I was left wanting. This is not the type of fiction all readers of fiction will enjoy.

The book is not a total loss though. There is much to enjoy and there is much to ponder. There is even something to be said about the conclusion of the book: It’s not an entirely bad idea, I just don’t know if it will save the world. It may be helpful. It may be a super idea. And it may be that in its simplicity there is  a great deal more truth than I am giving credit for, but none us of can wait to see if it is true. We have to get busy testing it. Then we will know.

****/5

Buy The Final Summit @ amazon.com

The Final Summit Homepage

Visit Thomas Nelson Publishers

I was provided with a free copy of The Final Summit for review purposes. I was in no way compensated for this unbiased review.

Leave a comment

Filed under fiction

Fasting by Scott McKnight

Jesus once said:

“When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” (Matthew 6:16-18)

Earlier, in the same sermon, Jesus also said: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” (Matthew 5:6)

So here, in what is arguably the most important sermon ever preached, fasting is mentioned twice: once rather prominently and a second time veiled in mystery; nevertheless, twice. I suppose Jesus could have preached many sermons about many things, and, to be sure, he probably did. John reminds us Jesus did and said many other things that are not written about in these books (or at least his). I sometimes like to imagine what Jesus would think of the sermons we humans have preached. When I was preaching regularly, that was always my deepest caution: what would Jesus think of this word or that word, this idea or that. I think more preachers would do well to imagine Jesus reading their sermons before they preached them. Yet I digress.

In this sermon, Jesus mentions fasting. He doesn’t talk about justification by faith. He doesn’t talk about substitutionary atonement. He doesn’t mention the cross or his resurrection. But he does mention fasting. This leads me to wonder why: why would Jesus, in this most important sermon, mention fasting so prominently?

Fasting, by Scott McKnight, is one book in a series of books published by Thomas Nelson in their The Ancient Practices Series of books that also includes titles such as Sabbath, Tithing, The Liturgical Meal, and In Constant Prayer. This is the first book (Fasting, that is) I have read in the series. I have to say that I thoroughly, 100% enjoyed this book. I was refreshed. I was strengthened. I was renewed. McKnight found a way to take a topic usually reserved for Lent and show how it is, and should be, an everyday practice among those who follow Jesus. (For example, he wrote, “More attention needs to be given by proponents of body discipline to the A Column—to the grievous sacred moments that prompt fasting as a daily, rather than occasional, response” 63.)

I love this book, and, frankly, that is saying something because I am very hard to please when it comes to books (there’s only a handful of authors who get instant approval from me—authors like Eugene Peterson and NT Wright and Stephen Ambrose to name a few.) It is also important for me to note my love of this book because I opened the pages with a healthy dose of skepticism. The series of books of which this one is a member includes a book by Brian McLaren and the series itself is edited by Phyllis Tickle and I thought at the beginning, “Why would McKnight include his name among people who have been relentless dogged as heretics and who are famous for the theological scandals they create?” By the time I was finished I was saying, “How could Brian McLaren and Phyllis Tickle, famous for their willingness to kick against theologically orthodox goads have their names associated with something so thoroughly and theologically orthodox, something so profoundly, deeply, thoroughly Scriptural?”

Yes. This is, in my estimation, the most important aspect of McKnight’s work: it is deeply Scriptural and when he ventures into the area of personal conjecture or historical church tradition, he is always careful to say something like, “we don’t know” (73) or “[B]ut we have to be fair with what the Bible says and doesn’t say” (69).  He is extremely careful to note for his readers when the Bible does and does not say something and is willing to criticize authors (like Dallas Willard) who make conjectures which may not be explicitly spelled out in Scripture.

Another important aspect of this book is that McKnight is also extremely aware of church history. He makes more than passing references to Andrew Murray, John Calvin, John Wesley, Jerome, Tertullian, Augustine, Martin Luther, and more. Modern authors find their way into the book also. One particular moment caught me by surprise and made me laugh. He may or may not have done it intentionally, but I was amused the find the name of John Piper in the book—actually in the introduction to the work. He is tracing a line from the Scripture to the early church all the way to the modern church. So he mentions Dallas Willard (a Protestant author), then he mentions John Piper (a Reformed Pastor), then Thomas Ryan (a Roman Catholic Priest). I found it amusing that John Piper finds himself in agreement with a Roman Catholic and Dallas Willard.

The importance of this, however, is that it demonstrates a connectivity in the major streams of Christian thinking: we are not all so different after all. Here John Piper can be quoted as freely as Joe Biden or Dallas Willard or Thomas Ryan or Tony Hall or Paul the Apostle or Abraham Heschel. We have something to learn from one another. In this sense, McKnight is not the author of the book as much as he is the editor, bringing together all these wise words and putting them before us in order that we might see the connection and understand: now is the time for fasting!

The book is rooted deep in Scripture and tradition. There is a healthy, wholesome balance—but tradition never trumps Scripture. McKnight is a careful scholar who respects the traditions of the church, but who is also determined  to demonstrate that perhaps there is something greater, more important that binds us together than our strange theological traditions.

Fasting serves a purpose, but it is not often what we might expect. Consider:

I have come to this conclusion about fasting: when the grievous sacred moment is neglected and instead we focus on the results, fasting becomes a manipulative device instead of a genuine, Christian spiritual discipline. Far too much of the conversation about fasting is about what we can get and not enough about the serious and severe sacred moments that prompt fasting. (xxi)

This is the echo that continues to reverberate throughout this book: we fast not to get something even if we get something from fasting. The end of fasting is not losing weight or answered prayers or healing or anything but God himself. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,” Jesus said, “for they will be filled.” Our goal is not the self-centered ideas we have, “Oh, if I just fast for a few days God will see me, reward me, and bless me. Yet the Scripture is fairly clear, “If you would humble yourself, and before God, in secret, fast, you will be rewarded—you will get God.” Thus he can write, “Because the Israelites yearned for God’s presence, they fasted; that yearning was blessed by God” (30).

He goes on later to say something similar:

The emphasis of these passages in the Bible is not that fasting clears the mind and opens the windows for God’s light to enter. Instead, the emphasis is on the yearning of God’s people to know God’s will. They are focused on the sacred moment more than the use of fasting as an instrument to get what they want. To be sure, they wanted something and they pleaded with God to get it, but I want to emphasize that there is genuine spiritual balance here: these good folks encountered the serious sacredness of wanted to know God’s will, and that yearning prompted their body plea. (49)

And so it goes for one-hundred and sixty nine pages. He continually draws us back to this simple fact that fasting is not about what we get (sometimes we get nothing) but about being with God, hungering and thirsting for God, finding our appetites sated only by the presence of God. McKnight concludes, “Ultimately, then, fasting is being with God and on God’s side in the midst of life’s grievous sacred moments” (169). This is key to understanding the position he takes and he consistently emphasizes and reinforces this point: fasting is about God, seeking him, searching him, hungering for him.

I love this book and there is so much more I want to say about it, but I want you to read it for yourself and discover these gems and jewels and graces. He has very important points to make about fasting and justice, fasting and suffering, fasting and sacraments, and more. The overall layout of the book is superb and flows beautifully. Still, what I want to emphasize is something I scribbled in the margin on page 59: I continue to be amaze at McKnight’s overwhelming dependence on Scripture to make his case.  This is an especially wonderful exposition of Scripture and its implications for the everyday life of the Christian. Why? Because we will need such wisdom to help us through dark times—such as the times currently upon us—in this life. Life, by any measure, is long, and the journey is complicated with all sorts of grief and frustration. Peter wrote that we should be ‘alert and of sober mind’ (1 Peter 5:8). Fasting is an important and necessary way to stay disciplined, to focus on our hunger for righteousness, to respond to the grievous, sacred moments of life, to earnestly seek God and his will:

Body discipline is not about the immediate resolution; instead, body discipline prepares the Christian for the long haul. This kind of discipline, like all the other kinds of fasting described in this volume, brings to expression an overall yearning to be more holy, to be more loving, and to be more responsive to God, self, others, and the entire world….Progress is measured in decades, not days. (67)

I highly recommend this book and give it a robust 4.5 out of 5 stars.

Scott McKnight @ Jesus Creed

Buy Fasting @amazon.com

**I received Fasting free for writing this review. Visit BookSneeze for more information.

Leave a comment

Filed under discipleship, theology

The Goodness of God by Randy Alcorn

The Goodness of God

Randy Alcorn

117 Pages

Multnomah Publishing

I have read quite a few books concerning suffering. D. A. Carson wrote a good one called How Long, O Lord? And many authors of the Christian stripe include sections on suffering in their books regardless of the subject matter of the book itself. They are not, for that matter, all Christians either. Some authors, in their exploration of suffering, have actually discovered what they believe to be God’s Achilles heel. “Aha,” they say. “Suffering and evil in the world prove there is no god or God.” Alcorn does not view it that way: “…we can follow the lead of Scripture and embrace the belief that God is accomplishing eternal purposes in the midst of painful and even tragic events” (73). That’s a difficult proposition, to be sure. But if our point of view is only from this world, horizontal, we will surely abandon all hope. Rather, Alcorn writes, we put our faith in God’s character and God’s promises.

I’ve read some good books on suffering. He Leadeth Me by Walter Ciszek is a fascinating book by a Catholic priest who was convinced that the time he spent in Soviet slave labor camps in Siberia had meaning. “It is much easier to see the redemptive role of pain and suffering in God’s plan if you are not actually undergoing pain and suffering” (119) he wrote. He went on to write,

It was only by struggling with such feelings, however, that growth occurred. Each victory over discouragement gave an increase in spiritual courage; every success, however fleeting, in finding the hand of God behind all things, made it easier to recapture the sense of his purpose in a new day of seemingly senseless work and hardship and suffering (119).

He learned during his time in the camp. He learned about faith, humility, humanity, death, freedom, and the kingdom of God. He met Jesus and became acquainted with his sufferings.

Leaving Church by Barbara Taylor Brown is another exciting book about suffering. When she began to lose, and eventually lost, she, too, learned about Jesus: “The second thing that happened when I lost my power was that I got a taste of the spiritual poverty that is central to the Christ path…Only those who lose their lives can have them” (163). Indeed. Yet sometimes we are not so willing to give up those lives and they have to be taken from us. We do not enjoy that taking away so we fight and kick and scream like little children who have had their favorite toy taken from them by a tired parent. We cannot prevail.

N.T. Wright’s fascinating look at suffering is found in Evil and the Justice of God, yet it is difficult to read through any of Wright’s books without finding a paragraph or two, chapter or two, devoted entirely to helping the wayfarer discover meaning in suffering.  Couching his argument entirely in the historical death and resurrection of Jesus, Wright writes, “The new life of the Spirit, to which Christians are called in the present age, is not a matter of sitting back and enjoying spiritual comforts in a private, relaxed, easygoing spirituality, but consists rather of the unending struggle in the mystery of prayer, the struggle to bring God’s wise, healing order into the world now, in implementation of the victory of the cross and anticipation of the final redemption” (119).

Many authors of fictional work have written brilliantly on the subject of suffering. Some of my favorite books The Count of Monte Cristo (Alexandre Dumas), Crime and Punishment (Fyodor Dostoyevsky), and King Rat (James Clavell) are books that delve deeply into philosophical and theological explorations of suffering. Another favorite, Silence by Shusaku Endo, is simply brilliant. The priest suffers mightily in the story, but at the end Endo writes, “…he was not betraying his Lord. He loved him now in a different way from before. Everything that had taken place until now had been necessary to bring him to this love” (191).

There are others. Annie Dillard, Philip Yancey, Flannery O’Connor, Henri Nouwen, Eugene Peterson, C.S. Lewis, and many, many others have written either overtly or through a glass about suffering. So now is added to the plethora of books on the subject of suffering, God, and justice Randy Alcorn’s thin The Goodness of God. Inherent in all the books I have mentioned, and not absent from Alcorn’s, is the idea that our suffering means something. There is some point to pain and sadness and darkness, we are told, that we may or may not understand while we are suffering it or being blinded in darkness. The problem, of course, is coming up with answers that in some way or other cover all possible scenarios. Alcorn does ask a very important question a little more than halfway through the book: “Whose purpose in your suffering will prevail? Whose purpose are you furthering?” (79). I agree this is a most important question to ask and, frankly, I wish this had been explored a little more than it was in the book.

I know that Alcorn is not intending his book to be a tour de force explanation of suffering. His book is one-hundred, seventeen pages; I read that many pages before breakfast. Still it is a helpful book, I think, for the beginner. Those who have taken a few more steps on the journey of faith will likely find the book to be a bit shallow while those who are just getting started, so to speak, will find nourishment. The book is milk, not meat. I think there are a lot of times when Alcorn gives us some good one-liners that we can jot down in our journals or on note cards for handy reference. This book, while theologically sound, is not taking us to greater heights or depths, but again, it is not intended to. Nevertheless, there are some rather profound insights in the book that I appreciated and have given much thought to. I’ll note two in particular.

First, he wrote, “Most people today understand evil as anything that harms others; the more harm done, the more evil that action. The Bible uses the word evil in a broader way to describe anything that flows not from loving God but rebelling against him” (9). I think this is healthy. I recently had a friend ask me that question, “What is evil?” Interestingly enough, before I read Alcorn I gave a very similar answer: Evil is anything that works against God, his righteous plans, his purposes in Jesus. Not everyone buys this, of course, but apart from such a righteousness (God’s righteousness) how else can we define evil? If I am the measure of all things, then my standard necessarily prevails against yours, and you had better hope you don’t violate my standard! Either everyone is wrong, or no one is. And if one person is wrong, then clearly we are all wrong.

A second important point comes from a later chapter where he wrote, “….there’s a fault in the logic of the major premise of the problem of evil… ‘it shouldn’t be limited to only two attributes of God—being loving and powerful—but it should include all of them—merciful, faithful, wise, holy, patient, glorious, etc.’” (33). Again, this is true. Often when considering God and his relationship to suffering we see on earth we limit God to one or the other of these two categories: power and love. And when we do, God is damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t.  We are never fully satisfied with God’s answers to our suffering—the suffering and evil that we tend to bring upon ourselves.

I disagree with Alcorn on a couple of points. His discussion of hell being a moral necessity if God’s justice is to be real in chapter 9 was a bit sketchy for me. I don’t believe our modern constructs of hell are fully in line with the Scripture and thus I think that some of Alcorn’s points here are a bit antiquated and missing the mark.

I also disagree that suffering and evil necessarily define what is and is not a good worldview: “And I believe the greatest test of any worldview is how it deals with the problem of evil and suffering” (34). I believe that the greatest test of any worldview is how it deals with Jesus.

The book is riddled with some of the more troubling Christian clichés about suffering. Of course the story of John Newton and Amazing Grace are recounted. C.S. Lewis’s tired saying about suffering being God’s megaphone to rouse a deaf world is quoted. Stories about the perplexities of suffering under noted Atheists like Hitler and Stalin are paraded across the pages. We are told the story of the Eliot’s and the Saint’s too. Predictably, Harold Kushner, Richard Dawkins, Viktor Frankl made appearances. And, finally, we are told that undeniably banal story of the train operator who had to choose between saving his son or saving a hundred people on a train if he didn’t pull the switch. There are so many, many, many other authors and stories to pay attention to when talking about suffering—not least of which is Endo, Dostoyevsky, Dillard, Chesterton, Tolkien, Hemmingway, Buechner, P.T. Forsyth, John Donne (who wrote a great book on suffering called Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions), Thornton Wilder (The Bridge of San Luis Rey)…and so many others. All I’m saying is that some stories in the repertoire ought to be laid to rest forever and authors who want to write in popular level theologies on suffering and evil and God ought to have to give us better illustrations. (To be sure, Chesterton and Dostoyevsky both make appearances in the book, but it is the clichéd stuff we might have expected, not the unexpected we might hope for.)

In the few short pages, Alcorn gives us a robust portrait of the God who allows our suffering. There is no doubt about that. But there is not enough help understanding God’s silence–which I believe to be the biggest problem for Christians. Christians for the most part get suffering; we struggle with God’s silence. Who could write that book without falling back to the, “Oh, God is sovereign and wants you to grow up a good jelly-bean that’s why he is being quiet” kind of clichés we have grown accustomed to in pop-Christianity? What we least like about suffering is God’s silence. This was Job’s complaint, but when God answered—ah, then it was Job’s turn to be silent. We despise God’s silence, I suppose, as much as we despise his noise. That is, I dread not hearing his voice, but when I do I am frightened of what he is saying. I’m not sure, after reading Alcorn’s book, I have heard that voice—even if I did happen to hear traces as if through a static filled radio.

2.5/5

Get more @Randy Alcorn

Alcorn’s Blog

Chapter 1 @ Scribd

Buy @ Amazon

**I received this book for free from WaterBrook Multnomah for this review.

Leave a comment

Filed under discipleship, theology

Radical: David Platt

Radical

by David Platt

230 Pages

WaterBrook Multnomah

Eugene Peterson tells the story in his book Eat This Book about visiting an orthodox synagogue in the little Galilean village of Hoshia. He tells of going to an early morning prayer meeting and hearing some young boys, ranging from twelve to seventeen, read from Scripture. Peterson comments, however, that “it only seemed to read for he had memorized it, the entire Torah, the first five books of the Bible” (35).  He continues:

We were moved by the joyful devotion of those boys to God’s revelation to them in that scroll, by their not talking about but living the centrality and authority of these Holy Scriptures. And then more deeply moved when we later talked over how many boys and girls and men and women in gatherings all over the world, hungry men and women, were doing the same thing, and how lucky we were to have had so many good meals with so many of them—hearty meals, soul-filling meals. (35-36)

If you were to ask me, “Are you a Christian?” I would likely answer with something equivalent to a “Yes.” I don’t think I would hedge that with any fences or equivocate in any way. I would say “Yes,” but maybe I wouldn’t be as quick to add an exclamation point as others would. Maybe it’s just cold outside.

I jest, of course, but the truth is that it is easy to wonder at times whether or not we do believe what we profess. Jesus says a lot of things in his book that are very, very difficult to come to grips with—especially if one is a Christian in America.  And if these things are hard to believe, how much more difficult are they to live out in everyday life? Here is where David Platt’s book picks up the story.

Platt does two things, primarily, in this book. He asks if we really believe what the Bible says and he then asks whether or not we are living it out in everyday life.  His opening salvo should be enough to make one either close the book in hopelessness or press on in the hope that the book is going to challenge its reader to radically alter the very core of their faith.

I am convinced that we as Christ followers in American churches have embraced values and ideas that are not only unbiblical but that actually contradict the gospel we claim to believe. And I am convinced we have a choice. You and I can choose to continue with business as usual in the Christian life and in the church as a whole, enjoying success based on the standards defined by the culture around us. Or we can take an honest look at the Jesus of the Bible and dare to ask what the consequences might be if we really believed him and really obeyed him. (3, paragraph break omitted.)

Platt spends a lot of time decrying so-called American Dream Christianity and I am being honest when I say that I struggled with this a great deal, and this is my only really, truly honest complaint with the book: it is very difficult to read about how terrible we are as American Christians when the person doing the writing is a 30-something, with a PhD (and two Master’s degrees for a total of five degrees), leading a 4,000+ member church, and globetrotting on mission trips. By the time I got to page 85, I had heard about trips to India, China, Sudan, Indonesia, and other African places. This was the only aspect of the book that truly frustrated me.

To an extent, though, Platt redeemed himself. I did sense as I read the book that Platt himself struggles mightily with these things.  There were two places where I sensed this struggle in Platt and one of the two times I thought maybe a breakthrough was coming.  The first was on pages 48-49 where Platt writes:

This is where I am most convicted as a pastor of a church in the United States of America. I am part of a system that has created a whole host of means and methods, plans and strategies for doing church that require little if any power from God. And it’s not just pastors who are involve in this charade. I am concerned that all of us—pastors and church members in the culture—have blindly embraced an American dream mentality that emphasizes our abilities and exalts  our names in the ways we do church.

The second time was near the end of the book when Platt ‘wrestled’ all the way to Sudan with whether or not he should have spent $3,000 to travel there after someone confronted him with this question: “Why don’t you just send the three thousand dollars to the people in Sudan? Wouldn’t that be a better use of money than your spending a week and a half with them? Think of how far that money could go” (197).

Don’t misunderstand me, please. I’m not criticizing Platt for sharing these two anecdotes.  He has his own journey to make and I am actually glad he has shared his struggles while on the journey. I’m glad he is being honest with us about his struggles.  But if you recognize you are part of the problem, and if you will ask me to give up my own money (as he does frequently), then there is wisdom in asking the question about whether or not spending three thousand dollars is a good use of money and no amount of justification (as follows this story on page 197-198) will do.  Platt asks his readers to sacrifice; indeed his constant decrying of American-Dream Christianity is his sacrificial rally-cry. I understand his point; I don’t understand his solution: “Like the rich young man in Mark 10, every Christian has to wrestle with what Jesus is calling us to do with our resources as we follow him” (119). Wrestling is not a solution.

I guess I wanted the conviction to run a little deeper and I wanted a heroic conclusion. I wanted a Francis Chan solution: give up the mega-church ministry instead of wrestling with the contradiction. Three thousand dollars to sit with someone in Sudan is a far cry from three thousand dollars to feed the very people Platt says we ought to feed:  “More pointedly, if our lives do not reflect radical compassion for the poor, there is reason to wonder if Christ is really in us at all” (111). That’s bold.  It’s perfectly true. And it’s strangely confounding given his wrestling. I’m glad Platt shared the story and opened himself up to the criticism; he gives all who read it a lot to consider.  (Don’t misunderstand me, please, because I don’t believe for a minute that Platt is a man who is neglecting the poor.)

There’s a lot of John Piper (the phrase ‘make much of God’ is right out of the Piper lexicon of neo-Reformed theology) in this book and clearly he is Reformed (Calvinistic) in his theological disposition. This doesn’t bug me too much, although it is a bit pedantic for those of us who do not happen to share his happiness and conviction for said theology. I’m not personally a huge fan of Piper’s theological ideas, but it does not necessarily get in the way of the larger point that Platt is making.

All of that said, I like this book. I like it because Platt is honest: he struggles. He struggles with the words of Jesus. He struggles with the journey. He struggles with the contradiction. He struggles with consistency. I could worship in his church and listen to him preach. I would gladly serve alongside him as he serves the poor because I am certain that no matter how many trips he takes, he is serving the poor, feeding them, and loving them in the name of Jesus. Platt believes that the words of Jesus are true and that we ought to be living according to them. And, to be sure, the stories he tells of Christians in various parts of the world is encouraging and challenging at the same time.

He tells stories like Eugene Peterson does: with passion: “And then more deeply moved when we later talked over how many boys and girls and men and women in gatherings all over the world, hungry men and women, were doing the same thing.” That’s the kind of stories Platt tells: Christians around the world, hungry for the Word of God, hungry to worship, hungry for the Spirit, dying for Christ, suffering for the cross, and praying despite all appearances that no prayers are answered. These are the folks that Platt tells us about, the people he has chosen to identify with, and the Christians who are our brothers and sisters in Jesus. It is the stories Platt tells about Christians around the world that ultimately makes this book worth the read.

I go away from this book extremely challenged. He challenges me to take the words of Jesus seriously and literally.

As a result, Christ commands the church make the gospel known to all people. If this is true, then the implications for our lives are huge. If more than a billion people today are headed to a Christless eternity and have not even heard the gospel, then we don’t have time to waste our lives on an American dream. Not if we have all been commanded to take the gospel to them. The tendency in our culture is to set around debating this question, but in the end our goal is not to try to find an answer to it; our goal is to alleviate the question altogether (157-158).

That is radical indeed.

****/4

*I received this book for free from WaterBrook Multnomah Publishing Group for this review.

Read an excerpt at Scribd

Buy this book @ Amazon

Get even more at RadicalTheBook.

4 Comments

Filed under discipleship, theology

Whole Life Transformation: Keith Meyer

Whole Life Transformation

by Keith Meyer

217 Pages

InterVarsity Press

I don’t believe that most men are looking for the Ultimate Fighting Jesus of Mark Driscoll lore. On the other hand, I don’t believe most men are looking for a Diary of a Wimpy Kid Jesus either. Unfortunately, for me, Meyer did not manage to strike the balance necessary to portray a Jesus I can relate to.

Meyer evidently was an overworked, ambitious, and terribly successful church pastor. He had everything going for him: a family, a church, and success. But he had something else too: piles of work on his desk in his church office, an overwhelming sense of self-importance, and a disconnect with reality. All of this came to a head one day when, while ‘spending quality time’ with his son, his son said to him, ‘Dad are you home yet?’ This caused Meyer to examine his life deeply.

He soon discovered a hole in his heart, a less than fulfilling life, a lacking social life, a distance with his wife, his son, and friendships. He also discovered a flaw in his character—filled as he was with all sorts of anger, lust, ambition among others. He claimed to a Jesus follower, but there were obvious flaws. It was Dallas Willard’s Spirit of the Disciplines that sort of helped bring Meyer back to reality because it helped him to ‘see things in the Bible in such a different light’ so that he ‘began to hope for a different kind of life’ (17). He went on the proverbial journey in order to discover this new way of living. This led him out of ministry, back into ministry, and eventually to teaching at seminaries and conferences, retreats, and consultations (19).

He writes as one who hasn’t necessarily arrived, as one who has many questions still, but who is willing to hear the questions and search for answers. He admits that he has searched for answers in strange places for a Protestant Evangelical including the Roman Catholic Church and in Quakerism (19) and other places too. I’m not so much bothered by where he found answers as to where he didn’t. I wonder, that is, why it seems that so often when such journey’s take place the person on the journey looks to the Roman Catholic Church, the Quaker Church, or the Eastern Orthodox Church for answers? Why is it, so often, the answers to life’s most troubling questions concerning slowing down, not being busy, loving your family, shunning ‘success’, and the like are found in the mysticism found in these church expressions?

It’s about this point that the author loses me. Simply put, the book comes across as wimpy. Don’t misunderstand me: I’m most certainly not suggesting that we need to have hyper-masculinity in order to be a Jesus follower. At the same time, reading through Meyer’s book was difficult at times because, frankly, it comes across as terribly weak. Sometimes I sensed that Meyer wanted to say more than he was saying, or that he was saying less than he should have been saying. Sometimes he was elusive and enigmatic.

Meyer is well read. He talks about books he has read from Mike Yaconelli to Philip Yancey to CS Lewis to Dallas Willard to NT Wright to Brother Lawrence to Scott McKnight to Dietrich Bonhoeffer to Frederick Buechner and others. I appreciate that he has read these authors. He has taken their ideas and woven them cohesively into his own semi-auto-biographical narrative of the discipline driven life. These authors have been valuable to my own journey and I see the value of their work.

There are some Evangelical Christians who will have trouble reading Meyer’s high praise of Roman Catholicism. They will have trouble with him listening to Eddie Vedder and Led Zeppelin. They will have trouble with his praise of Mother Teresa and John Henry Newman. They will be most unhappy with his praise of Phyllis Tickle, Dallas Willard and NT Wright. They will be most unhappy as he recounts his story of how the church he was pastor at ‘Open Door’ held a private baby dedication for a lesbian couple (chapter 6). And finally, there are those who will be somewhat bothered by Meyer’s insistence on seeking help from therapists and ‘life coaches’ and ‘spiritual directors’ and counselors. I admit that I find a bit of this annoying, but I am not Meyer. He had issues he believed could only be dealt with in this way. Just because I don’t find them particularly useful, doesn’t mean others will not.

I’m not altogether bothered by this stuff. The goal of Meyer’s book is to teach his readers the steps that he took to see his life transformed. Ultimately it boils down to the so-called disciplines. Again my trouble is not so much the disciplines themselves as their particular ‘use.’ One, in particular, bothered me greatly and that was Meyer’s suggestion of using an ‘image of Jesus’ when he prays. He wrote:

At the time I began a practice of starting my day with Jesus, I would use a picture of Jesus that my spiritual director suggested as I prayed. I need a new image because, as a child I was frightened more than comforted by a large picture of Jesus that hung behind the pulpit of our church. It was a popular painted called Head of Christ by Warner Sallman….The new picture that my spiritual director suggested I use isn’t culturally correct. I call it ‘GQ Jesus’ due to the Brad Pitt face, vanilla but tan, and hair. (189)

Frankly, I cannot imagine a worse practice whether it is a Warner Sallman or GQ Jesus. I find this suggesting appalling, dangerous, and deceiving. This is where some of the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic traditions have rendered Meyer’s arguments rather ineffective and useless. I see absolutely no use whatsoever in the use of icons in worship–it borders way too close to idolatry.

Two final criticisms. I hate endnotes. I understand the need to keep the academic feel out of the book, but I had endnotes. Second, there is no bibliography. For as much as Meyer quoted from a hundred different authors or referenced their work in some way, it is terribly disappointing that the book is devoid of a good bibliography or a at least a ‘books of further interest’ section.

I think this book, my criticisms notwithstanding, might be helpful for some people. There are a lot of people who have experienced problems similar to those of Meyer: overwork, burnout, distance from family members, sense of self-importance and worse. I’d like to think that Meyer’s book will help them in some way. The problem is that for all the helpful chapter titles, for all the quoted authors, for all the stunning anecdotes, for all the personal angst and revelation, for all the success, for all the wonderful ideas flowing from spiritual disciplines…I was left wanting more because I was left wanting Jesus. Maybe that was his point.

I have no doubt that readers will gain something from the book. I have no doubt that if read and applied faithfully, people will grow in their depth of spirituality. But what if we never have that crisis moment that causes us to question everything? What if we have no children to ask us if we are home yet? To be sure, there is no such thing as a life ‘free of worry, lust, anger, contempt, gossip and greed.’ There is only the life that contends against these things, continuously, by the power of the Spirit and the blood of Christ—his grace is sufficient regardless of how insufficient our faith is. If people get to the point where they read this book, I think they will find some grace they need.

I give this book 3 stars out of 5 not because I think he has a lot of answers, but because he is at least willing to go on the journey. Too many of us are not willing to take the journey and thus we never meet Jesus who is waiting for us. Meyer’s journey is a courageous one even if I am not particularly enthusiastic about some of the places he has stopped along the way.

***/5

Leave a comment

Filed under Church, discipleship