Review: Ready to Return?

Ready to Return? The Need for a Fundamental Shift in Church Culture to Save a Generation
by Ken Ham with Jeff Kinley; Research by Britt Beemer

Why have so many 20-somethings left the church, and what will it take to reclaim them? How can we make sure that 20-somethings that remain don’t disappear? This book uses research to show what went wrong and what the church can do about it.

…or so the back of the book claims. (more…)


Review: Little People, Big God

Little People Big God: Stories of Little People in the Bible Used by a Big God to Impact Their World
by Woodrow Kroll

There are some big names in the Bible: Moses. David. Peter. Paul. These are massive heroes! But what about the little people? In this book, Woodrow Kroll takes a look at thirteen “little people” from both the Old and New Testaments and shows how God used little-known people to accomplish big things.

In short: Don’t read this book. It is VeggieTales: it tells the history competently, but it’s all moralism and no Christ. It’s all “do this” and no “it is finished.” In fact, over and over again it states that all God wants is for us to do our best: “God keeps good records. His rewards are commensurate with our faithfulness in service. He is perfectly just and eager to advance us; He is looking for loyalty and obedience” (76). “[Micaiah] did what God asked, and that’s all God expects of any of us” (107). “What does Jesus expect from you? Just do what you can. That’s all Jesus asks” (141).

What’s the big deal? Instead of pointing me to Jesus, it points me to me. It drives me on. It is works righteousness disguised with a veneer of Christianity. It doesn’t show that these “little people” were sinners forgiven and loved by God. It doesn’t show them motivated by God’s mercy and grace. It lifts them up as examples that we should be like. All that will do is drive me to either pride at my accomplishments or despair that I’m not good enough.

On top of that, the book does seem to lead to a theology that says, “If you obey, God will give you an abundant life:” “To enjoy the abundant life that Christ intends for us, however, we have to live life God’s way” (20) Again, that’s junk. Jesus himself promised we would have trouble in this world. Our comfort is not an abundant life; it is Jesus, who knew suffering for us, to give us peace with God and a home in heaven.

The book does give a few positive messages. For instance, it does insist that even if the world never recognizes us, God sees our service. Using these little-known people as an example, it shows that we are valued by God. “Outside God’s Word, their names may appear only in Bible trivia games, but more important, they are written in the Lamb’s Book of Life (Rev. 21:27). While they may not be known among men, they are known by God (John 10:3). And they have left a heritage that is of value today” (10). This is a good message… but it’s not worth the poison of the other messages here.

Do you look to find value? Read again how far Jesus went for you, and remember he did it for the joy set before him. You are valued by God, but not because of your service. You are valued because of Jesus’s service. And that means your value doesn’t depend on your actions – and that’s a comforting thought.

52 Books in 52 Weeks

I have an addiction to ink. I take it in until it overflows and pours out of me. Maybe you’ve noticed.

The beasts line my shelves, breathing at me, tempting me with their covers and their words strung together with such artistry. The beckon with their pages and urge me to take them in.

And for this last year… I have. Oh, have I!

Starting May 24th, 2017, and continuing every week since then, I’ve been able to read at least one book a week with the eye of improving my ministry, either through digging deeper into God’s Word or improving an ability or becoming more knowledgeable in some related subject. Apparently it started with Chivalry and has continued and will continue weekly at least until August, since I’ve already written enough reviews to last until then.

It has been a trip. I’ve read some real dreck. I’ve also read some books that are amazing. Then again, I’ve read some real frustrating volumes. Some have been quick reads; others took me much, much longer.

And I’ve enjoyed it. By forcing myself to post reviews here, I’ve kept up my reading. I’ve learned. The percentage of books I own that I’ve actually read has grown! Basically, by being public with what I read, I’ve forced myself to keep going and think a little more critically about what I’m reading. What am I getting out of this? What would someone else get out of this?

Another benefit of this last year has been an increase in my reading speed. Some things still take me longer; I’m currently reading a Michael Horton book that I can’t breeze through so much. However, other books I can finish within a day pretty easily. I did it with The Ragamuffin Gospel and each of the God’s People series has taken me about a half hour. I appreciate being able to wrap things up so quickly!

Reading so much has also let me read much more widely than I might otherwise. I was able to read a book on the craft of preaching (review forthcoming!). I tackled the Lutheran Confessions. I read about the Jewish Trinity and technology and justification and so much more! I tried to take in a myriad of subjects from myriad sources, and I think I did pretty well there.

But… all things must come to an end.

I’m still going to be reading this next year, of course. No addiction can let me off that easily! But instead of trying to keep up a weekly posting schedule for reviews, I want to tackle some deeper books that will simply take me longer to read. Maybe because I’m so far ahead, it’ll still end up being a weekly review. Maybe not. But I’m not going to force myself to read that quickly, at least for the next year. After that? Who knows. Maybe I’ll try reading 52 books in 52 weeks again!

In the meantime: What do you do to continue growing in your abilities? Do you try to keep to a schedule, or do you have a goal? If you read, do you try to mix it up with different topics, or do you keep to one sub-genre?

With whatever you read, I hope you’re blessed by it!

Review: Every Moment Holy

Every Moment Holy
by Douglas Kaine McKelvey

Jesus is the Lord not just of the Sabbath, but every day of the week. In this collection of liturgies for everyday life, Douglas McKelvey uses his strong talents for poetry to help the reader connect their daily activities with the grace of God. While many of the liturgies are designed to be spoken in small groups, most can easily be read as a single person praising their Maker. Liturgies are provided for various hours of the day, mealtimes, being in awkward situations, drinking coffee, doing laundry, finishing a good book, going camping, and welcoming a pet into the family, as well as many, many more.

This. Book. Frustrates. Me. So. Much.

The book is one of the most attractive books I’ve ever held. It feels like leather binding. It has delicate scrollwork. The book invites you to simply hold it and feel it in your hands. This book, more than many others I’ve read, is an artifact worth its existence simply in how it was formed.

I’ve looked forward to reading this collection for months; I ordered it a good three months before it finally arrived. It’s from Rabbit Room Press, who also published The Lay of the Lord. They’ve earned my willingness to try what they put out.

And… oh. I am torn. (more…)

Review: The Answer to Our Cry

The Answer to Our Cry
by Rick McKinley; Forward by Shane Claiborne

All of humanity cries out for freedom. What’s the answer? Letting us do what we want, to follow our desires? Or is there a greater freedom? In The Answer to Our Cry, Rick McKinley says that our desire for freedom is found in Jesus. Not in following Jesus more closely, not in obeying, but simply… in Jesus.

This book frustrates me. McKinley speaks the Gospel well… until he doesn’t. I can’t figure out if he’s unclear himself, speaking from different traditions that simply use terms in different ways, or actually doesn’t have the Gospel. I don’t think it’s the latter, but maybe…? (more…)

Review: Why Should I Trust the Bible?

Why Should I Trust the Bible?
By A. Trevor Sutton

Not every question about the Bible has a Sunday school answer. Isn’t the Bible racist? Isn’t it out of date? Didn’t people change it over time? And if you give a simple answer… it often doesn’t reflect reality. In Why Should I Trust the Bible A. Trevor Sutton tackles the questions head on with whimsy and panache, addressing a number of questions with a touch of sarcasm and a lot of Jesus.

I love the basis of this book. “Why can I trust the Bible? Answer: Jesus” (19). Sutton hits it out of the park by starting there. He explains: “His life, death, and resurrection provide the trustworthy foundation for every page in the Bible. The Bible would be simply a book like every other book in human history if it were not for Jesus. He is the foundation for our trust in the Bible” (16).

But the thing I love is also a liability. This book is meant to be read by Christians; this isn’t a book you’re likely to hand to someone who’s already doubting the Bible. Instead, it’s meant for Christians to read to be able to answer objections directly. The book assumes that the Bible is God’s Word from the beginning, and that it’s about Jesus. In fact, Sutton ends the book with an objection that says, “Grace is too easy.” I love that he concludes with the gospel. He also addresses it very honestly: “Fully comprehending God’s work of salvation is easily the most mind-bending, heart-wrenching, soul-stretching endeavor imaginable” (184).

In fact, throughout the book he’s not afraid to call some objections to the Bible lazy or incomprehensible if you actually read the Bible, but he takes each objection seriously. He compares the Bible to other ancient literature like the Epic of Gilgamesh. Or more modern works, like Faulkner’s stories. But every time he takes each objection seriously. For instance, one objection is, “There’s so many interpretations, it can’t be true!” He responds, “The disagreements about how best to interpret the Bible are not evidence that it should not be trusted; rather, they are proof that Christians take the Word of God seriously” (149).

Through it all, he encourages readers to investigate on their own. “Trust in the Bible is not built on sweeping statements without analysis. Rather, trust in the Bible is built on bold statements that can be dissected and discussed, explored and examined” (61). So explore and examine!

Sutton tackles a number of objections. The downside is that each objection gets about five to ten pages. What that means is that he addresses a wide range of concerns. The downside is that none of them go too deep. On the other hand, at least in my experience, most people who use these kind of objections are speaking from ignorance. Answering an objection honestly and humbly, even on the level of this book, can open up discussion and hopefully help someone realize that it’s not as open and shut against the Bible as they might think.

But as Sutton keeps driving each section back to Jesus, the reader also has an example of how to take the discussion back to what matters most: Law and Gospel.

And again, Sutton encourages further study:

Keep going. Press on. Lean in. Pray that the Holy Spirit would engage your whole heart and your whole mind in answering these questions. Read more books about the Bible, study Scripture with others, and ask difficult questions. And above all, keep following Jesus. He is at the center of Scripture. He is the Word made flesh. Jesus is the real and living person around whom the Bible coheres. And He is the one and only source of eternal life. (197-8)

This book should be on your shelf. It’s a great step into apologetics, knowing more about the Bible, and answer serious questions honestly.

Review: Jacob

Jacob: He Wrestled with God
by Michael A. Woldt

Jacob enters Pharaoh’s court, a cloud of dust following him. His son has briefed him on how to approach the most powerful man in the world. And as Jacob draws near to the great king of Egypt, he reflects on his life, and how God’s faithfulness has saved him so many times before.

Jacob is another book in the God’s People series (I’ve previously reviewed Noah and Abraham). Just like the other two, this is a bite-size book that doesn’t seek to write historical fiction, but to show us God’s faithfulness to his people in a narrative way. This particular book focuses on the trickster Jacob.

I greatly appreciated author Michael Woldt’s way of making each person come alive. Rebekah, Jacob’s mother, has more of a personality than I think I’ve ever seen before. He shows her telling Jacob the stories of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, and Noah, and Jacob learning of God’s promises and his faithfulness. Jacob’s reasons for tricking his brother and running, and his guilt, all come to life. Woldt stays loyal to scripture even while showing us the grand scope of Jacob’s story.

Unlike previous entries in the series, though, I found the sidebars to be less useful. They certainly weren’t bad – for instance, one sidebar on Edom showed where Esau’s descendants settled – but I just didn’t feel they were as necessary as they were for Noah’s or Abraham’s entries in the series.

I also really enjoyed how Woldt began his telling of the story at the end of Jacob’s life. It not only placed things in context well, but made me consider Jacob’s life from a different perspective. Usually Jacob’s arrival in Egypt is told from his son Joseph’s perspective; not in this book! Opening there helped me set aside what I knew and enjoy the story of God’s people anew.

Like the other two entries I’ve read in the series, I highly recommend this. The entire series is shaping up to be a great addition to my library!

Review: Odd Girl Out

I have a different edition, so some of the quotes may be different from the edition linked here. 

Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls
by Rachel Simmons

Female bullying looks different from male bullying. Boys will fight. Their aggression can be incredibly loud. In comparison, female bullying is often “under the table.” Girls are taught to be nice, and so their aggression is often covert, but just as devastating. In Odd Girl Out Rachel Simmons traces the pattern of female bullying in middle and high school, showing how it appears, as well as giving advice on how to overcome this terrible problem.

Female bullying is real and it is devastating. I helped out at a teen center for many years. You could always tell when the young men didn’t like you or each other. You could also tell when whatever the problem was cleared up. The young women, though? Things would come up months or even years later. I saw how devastated a young woman could be with just a look or a comment. When I saw this book, I was eager to read it.

I had a range of reactions. This book is not aimed at Christian readers, and does not make Christian assumptions. As such, it never mentions Jesus nor forgiveness. That doesn’t surprise me. We’ll come back to that thought in a bit.

But one of the things that kept hitting me as I read the book was: Is it really as bad as Simmons claims? She paints a picture of a society that destroys young women. I’m not talking about the “lone bully.” She makes it sound like every single young woman is bullied and bullies back using numerous methods that fly under the radar of nearly every teacher. She makes it seem as if bullying is the feature of growing up female in the States. Is it that widespread? I know bullying is bad. I was the victim of it in middle school. I know how scarring it can be; that bullying still shapes many of my habits. But Simmons made it seem so much worse. But that is one of her first and main points: Bullying is not uncommon. “I was sure I was the only girl to ever know [what it was to be bullied]” (2). (more…)

Review: Other Sheep

Other Sheep
by Arnold H. Schroeder

Pastor Arnold Schroeder served as an institutional pastor for forty-two years, starting in 1938. In Other Sheep, he talks about the many different people he brought the Gospel to, from asylums, to hospitals, to rest homes, to orphanages. Throughout, he continues to praise God for loving sinners and calling lost sheep back to their Shepherd.

I was honestly surprised about the content of this book; I had expected it to be sharing how to share the Gospel in some very challenging situations, with some real-world examples. Instead what I got was story after story of how the Gospel worked. Schroeder tells most of his stories within one or two pages, but don’t think you’re getting Chicken Soup for the Soul here. This is not only heart-wrenching, but drenched with the Gospel. Schroeder isn’t afraid to let us see what sin has done, but he also shows how wonderful Jesus’s forgiveness really is. More than once tears came to my eyes as I read his vivid descriptions. He talks about veteran’s homes, asylums, hospitals, and the people that lived there.

The book isn’t just amazing stories. It shows pastoral care in action. It talks about how a pastor talked about Jesus, how the Holy Spirit used that Word, and how that Word grew into action in many people’s lives. I’m actually sad that I hadn’t had this book recommended to me at the Seminary; it provides so many good case studies!

I also enjoyed seeing history come alive in this book. This man started his ministry before the States entered World War Two! There’s been a lot of change in how we as a nation treat those who are unable to care for themselves. Our culture has changed so much, too. This is no nostalgic look back, nor is it condemning, but a simple, “This is how things were.”

And over and over again, Schroeder shared not only the stories of the people he ministered to, but how he shared Jesus with them. This is the Gospel in action, connecting Jesus’s death on the cross with living people and changing them.

If you’re looking for a straight-up practical theology book giving direct pointers, this isn’t for you. But if you want to see theology in action, to see how Jesus touched people throughout the 20th century, this book is well, well worth your time.

Review: The Leader in Me

The Leader in Me
by Stephen R. Covey, Sean Covey, Muriel Summers, and David K. Hatch

Schools are failing to teach kids what they need to know. Most schools concentrate on academics, but so often kids get out of school and they don’t know how to discipline themselves, find jobs, or even how to shake hands. Kids don’t know how to handle interpersonal communication. Kids can’t manage conflict. If schools are going to equip kids for today, they need to do more than teach academics. In The Leader in Me, the authors argue for a system that teaches Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People as a cross-curriculum point, so that every child is valued and learns all seven habits.

My children attend a public school. This school has decided to implement The Leader in Me and the principal invited me to be part of the “Lighthouse Team” that kicks off the process. Well, that meant I had to read the book! I want to be involved in my kids’ school so that not only can I keep an eye on what’s going on and encourage teachers, but so that also I can reach out in pre-evangelism so when something comes up I’m positioned to share the Gospel effectively.

When I first heard about the program, I was excited. The Seven Habits are actually a pretty good framework for life; they teach things like, “Be proactive,” which basically means being responsible for your own actions and emotions. It teaches, “Seek first to understand, then be understood.” Basically it teaches a bunch of good worldly wisdom.

But… I have to say, I’m really torn on the program. (more…)