the low down on new books

Christian Theology

Speaking of Jesus

Reviewed by Brittney

Just the Facts: by Carl Medearis. 187 p. Published 2011 by David C. Cook. Advanced review copy provided by Speakeasy in return for my honest opinion.  (Book excerpt read by Carl here).

Verdict: ★★★★★

Who Cares? Anyone who loves Jesus but finds Christianity frustrating.

Short Bio: Carl does his best to offend just about anyone who is attached to all the trappings of Christianity – but he does it with a sense of humor, a touch of reality, and with the obvious filter of being one of Jesus’s number one fans.  He challenges the traditional ideas of evangelism and salvation by pointing out not only their lack of scriptural foundation (especially when looking at Christ’s example) but also by laying out what most of us know to be true – they are terribly ineffective and often get the opposite result!

Carl makes the case that our current idea of “evangelism” is the result of believing we “win” people to Team Christian by convincing them logically that all the elements of Christian doctrine are true, but in the process end up having to defend a whole history of sinful and misguided actions committed in the name of Christianity.  He advocates that we have moved away from the heart of the gospel – that Jesus said he himself was the only way to come to God (relationship, not logical belief).  If you simply and joyfully point to Jesus rather than try to defend man’s religious version of Jesus’s message, you’ll witness some amazing things.

Eyewitness Account:  I LOVED this book.  I’m ashamed to admit that I could relate all to well with Carl’s many examples of how we can we get so distracted with Christianity (ooh, shiny!) that we sometimes miss Jesus.  In fact, although I would call myself a Christian, I found that Carl was definitely “evangelizing” to me – because I needed the reminder that it always boils down to how you respond to Jesus’s call to “Follow me”.

I loved how accessible and readable this book was – I could give it to a 5th grader, to my grandpa, or to my pastor.  Carl’s humor and humility are sugar that helps the medicine go down (I’m sure I annoyed my fellow bus passengers at several points by laughing out loud).  Ultimately, I finished the book excited and energized to know Jesus more and follow him more closely – which I think Carl would appreciate! (Apparently Carl and I are BFFs and on a first name basis – try reading his book and see if you don’t feel the same way).

Highly recommended, and I think that people of other faiths would also like this book!

Notable Quotes: 

“When we preach Christianity, we have to own it. When we preach Jesus, we don’t have to own anything. Jesus owns us. We don’t have to defend Him. We don’t even have to explain Him. All we have to do is point with our fingers, like the blind man in the book of John, and say, “There is Jesus. All I know is that He touched me, and where I was once blind, now I see.”

“We have an unfair advantage. We know the Creator. We’re friends with the King. We know where truth is found and its name. We know what brings life and what gives life and where eternal life resides. It’s not fair. While others are explaining and defending various “isms” and “ologies,” we’re simply pointing people to our friend. The One who uncovers and disarms. The beginning and the end of the story.”

“There is a place for doctrines and dogma and science and history and apologetics, but these things are not Jesus—they are humanly manufactured attempts to make people think that having the right ideas is the same thing as loving and following Jesus.”

” . . . Jesus can go toe-to-toe with anything.  There is no person in human history who holds a candle to Jesus.  When we make sharing our faith a war of ideals, we create casualties on both sides of the boundary.  We fight an “us versus them” campaign trying to show that our religion, our logic, our reason, our theology is better than everyone else’s.”

Other Books Read by This Author: None, but Tea with Hezbollah is on my list.

What are other people saying?  CNN Article on Carl’s Book (and its 73 pages of comments), Will’s Blog, Sister Chat, Rick Love  

Rating:

★★★★★ Writing Style

★★★★★ Organization

★★★★★ Original Idea

★★★★★ Page Turner

Overall ★★★★★


Lit! A Christian Guide to Reading Books

Reviewed by Brittney

Just the Facts: by Tony Reinke.  208 p.  To be published Sept 30, 2011 by Crossway Books.  Advanced review copy provided in electronic format by the publisher in return for my honest opinion, courtesy of NetGalley.

Verdict: ★★★★★

Who Cares? Adult Nonfiction – Christian Growth

Short Bio:

A call for Christians to reclaim the priority, privilege, and practice of reading.

Christians are identified as people of the Word—submitted to the authority of God’s written Word, called to center our lives on it and not on the image-driven world that vies for our gaze. But how do we build such lives, and what do they look like?

Tony Reinke’s answer is that we are to be readers of the Word of God and of the many other books that reflect God’s truth, goodness, and beauty in the world. In Lit!: A Christian Guide to Reading Books, Reinke lays out a theology of reading built around the gospel, developed from Scripture, and corroborated by church history. He offers guidance for exercising discernment in what we read, and practical advice on how to read regularly and well. Reinke also explains how to foster a culture of reading in our churches and homes. The book stresses that we may find truth, help, insight, or beauty in many different forms of literature, from theology to fiction to fantasy to business. Reinke reminds us that God is the author of all knowledge, and we read every book under his illumination.

Eyewitness Account:

The book blurb on NetGalley immediately intrigued me – someone wrote a whole book on why Christians should read (and written by an admitted “non-reader”)?  I snatched it up quick and wasn’t disappointed.  Reinke has a great writing style that is engaging, yet succinct (I didn’t do a whole lot of skimming because he moved from point to point fairly quickly himself).  The content was great; the first half of the book is Reinke’s “theology of reading”, his own thesis on why any Christian (or any person, really) who wants to grow and mature should read. I was most struck in this section by Reinke’s discussion of how when we rely more and more on visual media to communicate, we lose out on the precision of meaning found in words.

The second half is pure nuts and bolts – how to find time to read, how to highlight and annotate so that you get a lot out of your reading, how to make personal priorities for choosing what to read, and how to pass on a love and discipline of reading to your kids (to name just a few).  His chapter on priorities was so timely for me – I have been feeling overwhelmed these last few months with the sheer volume of what I want to read and how little time I have to read it in (as my backlog of NetGalley manuscripts can attest to!).  I took his advice and made a list of the goals I have for reading and it was so helpful to approach my TBR list with actual priorities and criteria for picking the next book!

The only thing that seemed odd about this book is the fact that he is really writing to people who don’t read – and it made me wonder how on earth he would get his message out to such people using a book? (Christmas present from those who do read?  My spouse just might get this one in his stocking . . .!)  However, they aren’t the only people who can find some juicy nuggets in this book – I loved it, and would highly recommend it to anyone.

Notable Quotes:

My priorities help me determine the value of a book. My priorities set the highest value on the rarest books (like theologically sound books on the person and work of Christ) and place the lowest priority on the most abundant literature (like best-selling secular fiction). This prevents me from allowing the abundance of literature in a category to dictate my reading diet. The categories prove valuable when I walk into a bookstore.

Literature is life. If you want to know what, deep down, people feel and experience, you can do no better than read the stories and poems of the human race. Writers of literature have the gift of observing and then expressing in words the essential experiences of people . . . The rewards of reading literature are significant. Literature helps to humanize us. It expands our range of experiences. It fosters awareness of ourselves and the world. It enlarges our compassion for people. It awakens our imaginations. It expresses our feelings and insights about God, nature, and life. It enlivens our sense of beauty.

This is a matter of conscience for each believer. And while there are no rigid rules for what Christians should or should not read, we must each be sensitive to our own conscience and the consciences of those around us. As we establish our own understanding of what books we will and will not read ourselves, we must respect the parameters that other Christians have chosen to set for themselves and for their children.

“Literature and art are God’s gifts to the human race,” writes literature scholar Leland Ryken. “One of the liberating effects of letting ourselves ‘go’ as we enjoy literature is to realize that we can partly affirm the value of literature whose content or worldview we dislike. If God is the ultimate source of all beauty and artistry, then the artistic dimension of literature is the point at which Christians can be unreserved in their enthusiasm for the works of non-Christian writers.”14 This point is critical for book readers. Our freedom to enjoy the aesthetic beauty of non-Christian literature does not require us to first endorse the author’s worldview or personal ethical choices.

Other Books Read by This Author: None.

What are other people saying? The Biblical Bookshelf, Tom Farr’s Blog, Thoughts on Theology

Rating:

★★★★ Writing Style

★★★★ Organization

★★★★★ Original Idea

★★★★★ Page Turner

Overall ★★★★★


The Greener Grass Conspiracy

Reviewed by Brittney

Just the Facts: by Stephen Altrogge. 144 p. Published April 2011 by Crossway Books.  Advanced review copy received in electronic format courtesy of the publisher, through NetGalley. 

Verdict: ★★★★★

Who Cares? Adult Christian Non-Fiction (Spiritual Growth)

Short Bio: Stephen Altrogge delves into our society’s most commonly found malady: discontentment.  How could residents of the richest nation in the world, of whom most are in the world’s top 1% wealthiest, be so discontent?  Altrogge examines what this discontentment looks like in our lives, what’s at the root of it, and how we combat it.

Eyewitness Account: Moment of truth: I expected this book to bore me.  It had “yeah, yeah, I know all that” written all over the blurb.  If you looked at the five-star rating above, you can imagine just how surprised I was to find these short 144 pages a down-and-dirty, “in the trenches” look at the battle for contentment.  Altrogge examines the nature of discontentment (which is ultimately a form of idolatry – finding or believing that true satisfaction is in something God created rather than in God himself), the lies we believe when we’re not content (“God owes me”, “God is holding out on me”, “If I could just get this one thing then I’d be truly happy”, and finally, “I know what’s best for me”), what we truly deserve from God (punishment for being the rebellious idolaters that we are), what we actually get from God (not only forgiveness for our death-causing sins, but also a place in God’s family as his children and inheritors of his kingdom), and the root of what we are truly longing for – the Heaven we were created to enjoy.

When I read books on my Kindle, I like highlighting good quotes so that I can peruse them later when I write my book reviews or when I want to share good parts with my friends.  I went back into my highlighted quotes for this review and found FIFTY-THREE PASSAGES that I had marked (my average for a really good book is about 20)!  With just the right mix of personal anecdotes, too-true illustrations, and scriptural backing for each of his chapters, I found this book enjoyable, humorous, well-paced, deeply thought-provoking, and extremely practical to apply.  Two thumbs up and a big gold star sticker for Stephen Altrogge!

Notable Quotes:  (remember, I had FIFTY-THREE quotes to pick from!)

“He displays his glory in some people by allowing them to suffer and then gives them incredible amounts of grace in the midst of that suffering. He shows his glory in others by abundantly blessing them and then giving them a heart that overflows with generosity. To some he gives a large family, so that they might raise their children to the glory of God. To others he gives the gift of singleness, so that they might pour all their energies into serving Jesus. God is God, and he will display his glory in us as he chooses.”

“Discontentment is the result of misplaced worship. It’s the result of giving our heart to someone or something that should never have it. When we stake our happiness on anything other than God, we’re going to be miserable. Why? Because we were made to worship God and find all our joy in him.”

“The world is full of good things, wonderful things, all made by a generous and good God. Deep friendships are wonderful. A day to ourselves is refreshing. Good health is a blessing. But God has designed these gifts to be windows through which we see him. The gifts are meant to point us to the Giver, not to be an end in and of themselves. And so God has made us in such a way that we can’t be satisfied in anything other than himself.”

“Marriage isn’t the ultimate. Deep friendships aren’t the source of eternal joy. Being in heaven in the presence of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is the ultimate. Being face-to-face with and talking with, feasting with, and serving Jesus is the end-all. Throw away your ideas of a boring heaven with nothing to do. We’re going to be with our Creator, the one who invented gladness and created fun. Heaven is going to be ringing with joy and laughter and excitement.”

Other Books Read by This Author: None.

What are other people saying?   Blogging Theologically, The Unwasted Life, Sharper Irons, 

Rating:

★★★★ Writing Style

★★★★ Organization

★★★★★ Original Idea

★★★★★ Page Turner

Overall ★★★★★


Radical

Reviewed by Brittney

Just the Facts: by David Platt. 240 p. Published May 2010 by Multnomah Books.  Book received as a gift.

Verdict: ★★★★★

Who Cares? Adult Christian Non-Fiction

Short Bio: Platt challenges Christians in the United States to examine one of the fundamental components of their culture: The American Dream.  He builds a convincing case that the elements of the American Dream (with hard work, achieve all your potential and enjoy the resulting reward of your labor) inherently conflict with the biblical gospel (God calls the weak and powerless to rely on His strength to fulfill the mission to see His name glorified by all people on earth).  Platt evaluates the way the Christian church and our individual Christianity look in America and compares them to the examples of the church and Christians in the Bible.  He compares our common strategies with those of Christ’s example.  He lists Christ’s instructions to his disciples alongside our expectations of what Christian commitment entails.  Finally, Platt calls readers to join him in an “experiment” to test out the theory that we might be missing out in our American Christianity – he charges readers to (consistently, for one year): 

1. Pray for the whole world (using Operation World),
2. Read the whole Bible,
3. Give sacrificially to a specific purpose in a specific context,
4. Go serve someplace out of your normal context (for one week of the year), and
5. Participate in a faith community. 

Eyewitness Account: This book is certainly one of the most challenging and engaging reads I’ve had in a while – and I read almost all of it in one day because I was so interested in it!  I’m not usually big into marking up books, but my copy has underlines and notes and exclamation marks all through it (hopefully those will amuse whoever borrows it from me) because I wanted so much to engage in the author’s discussion.  I completely resonated with the struggle of fleshing out what it means to be a disciple of Christ in an American context – what exactly is our purpose in life? Is it to climb up our career ladder and work for the comfort and security of our family’s future?  Is it even to regularly attend church and ensure that you give to good charities? Or is it to radically hunger and thirst for God’s word and presence in your life in a way that causes you take ridiculous risks? 

I enjoyed Platt’s honesty about his own spiritual journey and the times when he himself has fallen victim to the American Dream.  I was left challenged with the idea that even having been a Christian for many years, I still think with my American brain.  When I am excited or touched with a need that I sense God asking me to step up to fill, I immediately start thinking “How can I fulfil it? How can I accomplish that task? What resources do I have?” I’ve slipped into my American mindset already – and if I were to succeed, who would get the credit?  Would anyone look at what I’d done and praise God?  No – they’d praise me.  God chooses to use the weak and the powerless and asks them to do ridiculous, impossible things because He knows that’s how He gets the credit!

I LOVED the examples of hard-core disciples that Platt gave – people like George Muller, Jim Elliot, and John Paton who did seemingly crazy things that ended with God getting praise from people who were definitely against God before.  I also found this book to be exceptionally well organized for something of this content – I really appreciated how Platt walked the reader through Matthew 10 to discuss how Christ sent out the disciples, what he told them to expect, and how he equipped them.  I also found his walk-through of the Romans Road a very provocative and logical exposition on our status before God and the need to share the message of Christ with others.

Although I already have portions of his “experiment” imbedded in my daily life, I was challenged to be more consistent and intentional about them.  I found this book though-provoking and and look forward to re-reading it again soon (hopefully I can talk my book club into it)!  If this book really intrigues you, I’d urge you to check out the insightful review done on the Gospel Coalition’s page (linked below) – it has some thought-provoking questions about the content of this book and Platt’s response.  

Notable Quotes: 

“The dangerous assumption we unknowingly accept in the American dream is that our greatest asset is our own ability. The American dream prizes what people can accomplish when they believe in themselves and trust in themselves, and we are drawn toward such thinking. But the gospel has different priorities. The gospel beckons us to die to ourselves and to believe God and to trust in his power. In the gospel, God confronts us with our utter inability to accomplish anything of value apart from him.”

“In direct contradiction to the American dream, God actually delights in exalting our inability. He intentionally puts his people in situations where they come face to face with their need for him. In the process he powerfully demonstrates his ability to provide everything his people need in ways they could never have mustered up our imagined. And in the end, he makes much of his own name.”

Other Books Read by This Author: None.

What are other people saying?  Another book review from Lets Eat Grandpa, a book review and dialogue with the author at The Gospel Coalition, and a reader who evaluates her progress on the “experiment” on year later at The Coffee Shop.

Rating:

★★★★★ Writing Style

★★★★★ Organization

★★★★★ Original Idea

★★★★★ Page Turner

Overall ★★★★★


Counterfeit Gospels

Reviewed by Brittney

Just the Facts: by Trevin Wax. 240 p. Published April 2011 by Moody Publishers. Advance review copy provided in electronic format courtesy of the publisher, through NetGalley.

Verdict: ★★★★

Who Cares? Adult Christian Theology

Not-so-Short Bio (from NetGalley):  What if the biggest danger to the church of Jesus Christ is not blatant heresy, the moral failures of church leaders, persecution, the rise of Islam or the loss of our rights? What if the biggest threat is counterfeit gospels within the church, ways of thinking and speaking about the good news that lead to a gradual drift from the truth of Scripture?

The gospel is like a three-legged stool. There’s the Gospel Story – the grand narrative of Scripture (Creation, Fall, Redemption, Restoration). Within that overarching framework, we make the Gospel Announcement about Jesus Christ (His perfect life, substitutionary death, resurrection, exaltation). The gospel announcement then births the Gospel Community: God’s church – the embodiment of the gospel, the manifestation of God’s kingdom.  A counterfeit gospel is like a colony of termites, eating away at one of the legs of this stool until the whole thing topples over. This book exposes six common counterfeits (Therapeutic, Judgmentless, Moralist, Quietist, Activist, and Churchless) that would get us off track.

The goal of Counterfeit Gospels is to so deepen our love for the unchanging gospel of Jesus Christ that we would easily see through the many counterfeits that leave us impoverished. So come, love the gospel, recognize and overcome the counterfeits, and be empowered for ministry!

Eyewitness Account: The title of this book intrigued me – and I was not disappointed!  Wax and Chandler break out their definition of “the gospel” (mainly the three pieces mentioned above, Story – Announcement – Community) and how many of the “gospels” being taught/preached in churches today change one of those pieces.  I was impressed not only with the content of this book, but also with how the authors organized it; after each “counterfeit” is defined and explained with examples,  the authors describe why we fall for it (what elements of truth are still in it) and what dangers result from holding to that counterfeit.  I highly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in what the core beliefs of Christianity are and how Christians and the Church can most accurately reflect those beliefs.  Counterfeit Gospels is a very thoughtful and well-written response to the increasing number of Christian churches who have succumbed to off-target or incorrect doctrine.

Notable Quotes: 

“But in most cases, counterfeit gospels represent either a dilution of the truth or a truth that is out of proportion. There may still be enough of a saving message to reconcile us to God, but the watered-down version never satisfies our longings. Nor will it empower us for service, or embolden our witness before a watching world.”

“. . . true happiness does not line up with the world’s definition. True joy is much deeper and richer than that offered by the various versions of the therapeutic gospel, because true joy is found in God Himself, not just in His gifts. The god of the therapeutic gospel is too small. We think that because God is love, we will be delivered from trials and discomfort. But God loves us too much to only give us comfort and prosperity. God is not interested in our self-actualization; he’s interested in our Spirit-actualization. He is forming us into the image of Hs Son. And if we are to look more like Jesus, the Suffering Servant, surely we will pass through times of suffering.”

Other Books Read by This Author: None.

What are other people saying? Mere Orthodoxy, Covenant of Love, Blogging Theologically

Rating:

★★★★ Writing Style

★★★★★ Organization

★★★★ Original Idea

★★★★ Page Turner

Overall ★★★★