Book Reviews

Our Secular Age edited by Collin Hansen

Our Secular Age edited by Collin Hansen

The premise of Our Secular Age doesn’t have strong curb appeal: evangelical Christians grappling with the contribution of a contemporary philosopher’s nearly 900 page tome. Despite the fact that one of my favorite authors, James KA Smith has been significantly influenced by Charles Taylor, I still have yet to pick up Taylor’s A Secular Age.

Despite the less-than-enticing premise, Our Secular Age is a book that should be broadly read by Christian leaders. Even for the reader (like myself) who has no first-hand experience with Taylor, his theses are laid out clearly and the wide-ranging impact of his thought is explored and at times critiqued.

Taylor’s central thesis is that the secular world is a world that has turned its focus on the self and lost its sense of the transcendent. Collin Hansen says that Taylor traces the beginnings of this age to Martin Luther: “Taylor faults the Protestant Reformation and modern evangelical Christianity for disenchanting the world and turning the focus on the self rather than on God through and turning the focus on the self rather than on God through shared religious rituals.”

What I Read In 2018; What I’m Hoping to Read in 2019

What I Read In 2018; What I’m Hoping to Read in 2019

I read 54 books in 2018: about one a week. I love learning and books are one of my favorite forms of learning. I tend to read five types of books: Christian Living, Theology, Leadership, General Non-Fiction, and Fiction. If you’re interested in tracking my reading, getting fuller reviews, and sharing with me your favorites, I use Goodreads and would be happy to have you friend me there. Here were some highlights for me in 2018:

Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering by Timothy Keller

Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering by Timothy Keller

Everyone suffers. And yet perhaps because of the age in which we live, there have been few cultures that have struggled more with suffering than ours. I’m currently reading a popular book on loss and I’m struck by how vapid the wisdom of our age is in the face of suffering.

Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering is, quite simply, the best book on suffering that I’ve read. Keller deals with the subject philosophically, theologically, and practically. Each treatment is successful on its own, and combined they pack a unique punch as Keller engages mind and heart alike.

Timothy Keller is such a unique author. His books range from the incredibly accessible: The Prodigal God and Counterfeit Gods, to the slightly more rigorous, but still very accessible apologetic, The Reason for God, to the more rigorous practitioner’s guides such as Generous Justice or Preaching. Part of Timothy Keller’s unique gifting is his ability to write so well in each of these genres. Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering is the most rigorous book by Keller to date and yet the book is every bit as well written as any of his best.

Contemporary westerners are repelled by suffering and death. On the stage of world history, our fear of death is abnormal. Keller quotes an author at The New York Times Magazine, who, after the tragic sniper shootings in the Washington DC area reflected, “The fact is, staving off our own death is one of our favorite national pastimes. Whether it’s exercise, checking our cholesterol or having a mammogram, we are always hedging against mortality. [And yet] despite our best intentions, it is still, for the most part, random. And it is absolutely coming.”[i] This aversion to suffering and death is a cultural blind spot and means that we naturally approach the topic with naiveté.

Just Do Something by Kevin DeYoung

Just Do Something by Kevin DeYoung

“What’s God’s will for my life?” I’ve asked that question and heard that question asked a thousand times in my ten years as a pastor. It’s a go to question I deal with when talking to middle school, high school, and college students.

Kevin DeYoung insists that the answer to the question is as simple as his title. How do I know God’s will for my life? “Just do something.” At first blush that answer sounds as reckless as it does callous.

But DeYoung builds his case scripturally that a faithful Christian life is not a life waiting to hear the whisper of God about what parking spot to take, school to choose, career to select, and spouse to marry. Instead, again and again, scripture frames the will of God in terms of the character of God. What is God’s will? The fruits of the Spirit. In DeYoung’s words, “God's will is always your sanctification.” 

Obsessing over choices God wants us to make actually shackles us from living in the freedom of God’s purposes. DeYoung says, “The only chains God wants us to wear are the chains of righteousness--not the chains of hopeless subjectivism, not the shackles of risk-free living, not the fetters of horoscope decision making--just the chains befitting a bond servant of Christ Jesus. Die to self. Live for Christ. And then do what you want, and go where you want, for God's glory.” Applying Christ’s words, it sounds like this, “Seek first the kingdom of God, and then trust that He will take care of our needs, even before we know what they are and where we're going.”

Evil and the Justice of God by NT Wright

Evil and the Justice of God by NT Wright

After NT Wright completed his seminal work on the resurrection of Jesus: The Resurrection of the Son of God he planned on writing a follow-up on the crucifixion of Christ (what would eventually be The Day the Revolution Began). As he prepared to write that book, tragedy struck as 19 terrorists hijacked four commercial airliners and flew them into civilian targets on the Eastern seaboard of the US. Wright realized he needed to write a book on the problem of evil before he dealt with the cross. This thin (less than 170 page) volume Evil and the Justice of God is Wright’s contribution on the subject of evil and God.

Wright’s book is neither primarily a pastoral nor a philosophical reflection on the problem of evil. It deals with the problem primarily from a cultural and biblical perspective. Wright speaks with such ease, you feel as though you’re sitting with a cup of tea in hand in his living room. This both warmly draws the reader in, but can at times give one the sense that the material is ad hoc and is not as well thought out as one would hope.

The encroachment of evil in the contemporary world has been a significant problem, and yet, Wright notes, it “seems to have taken many people, not least politicians and the media, by surprise.” This is because our cultural philosophy has no answer for evil. Wright identifies that cultural philosophy in one word: progress. What is new, no, what is next holds the highest value (look no further than our cultural worship of youth).

And yet, we should have learned that progress provided no real answers for our hardest questions. How, in light of Auschwitz, could we still be anchored by a philosophical mooring as weak as progress? Our answer has been to project evil outward: to the other, to society, to politics. But a culture of blame is no real solution.

Enter postmodernity, where cynicism reigns: “nothing will get better and there’s nothing you can do about it.” But that is no solution. Worse still, “postmodernity allows for no redemption. There is no way out, no chance of repentance and restoration, no way back to the solid ground of truth from the quicksands of deconstruction.”

Modernism did away with Satan and evil, but the burden of proof lies on the modernist to defend their tenuous construal of reality.

What does the God of the Bible do about evil? Wright takes us on a biblical tour to answer that question.

Getting to Yes by Roger Fisher and William Ury

Getting to Yes by Roger Fisher and William Ury

In his 1961 Inaugural Address John F Kennedy famously said, "Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate." For most of us, negotiation is almost synonymous with fear. How do we move to a place of negotiating with confidence and peace? Getting to Yes is as good a place to start that process as any I could imagine.

Getting to Yes was first published in 1981. In this, the third edition of this time tested book, the authors begin acknowledging the flattening of the workplace. If anything, flatter organizations make Fisher and Ury's work all the more important. It's not surprising then, that they note that "a generation ago, the term 'negotiation' also had an adversarial connotation. In contemplating a negotiation, the common question in people's minds was, 'Who is going to win and who is going to lose?'" Fisher and Ury suggest there is a better way in Getting to Yes and then show you how to get there.

As a pastor, you might think that negotiation isn't a skill I have to use very often, but Fisher and Ury's book was not only helpful to me in my personal life (over the past three years I have negotiated a home sale, solar panel contract, a car purchase, and a job contract). But our lives are filled with negotiation. Even in my role as a pastor, negotiation is a daily occurrence, from negotiating sermon series to recruiting people into ministry roles, to navigating ministry direction, to negotiating staff culture and church vision documents. Simply put, we all need Fisher and Ury's book.

In their clearly outlined book, they suggest that the most significant problem is that we bargain over positions. To transform our ability to successfully negotiate we must do the following four things:

1) Separate the people from the problem;

2) Focus on interests, not positions;

3) Invent options for mutual gain;

4) Insist on using objective criteria.

Playing God by Andy Crouch

Playing God by Andy Crouch

There is a strange dissonance today. In a time where we embrace conversations about developing our leadership and influence, we are allergic to power. Andy Crouch wants us to have an honest conversation about power and recognize that it is a gift given by God and “rooted in creation… intimately tied to image bearing.”

The oft-quoted Lord Acton quote, “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely” shows our distrust of power (the fact that we usually drop the “tends to” in the quote shows our hand even more. We are cynical about power. But we typically define power too narrowly, in ways that exempts us from possessing it. But that is false.

What is power? “Power is simply (and not so simply) the ability to participate in that stuff-making sense-making process that is the most distinctive thing that human beings do.” We ought not flinch, then, from owning up to the fact that we all have power. In fact, if we did not have power, even our purest impulses for love and justice would be impotent (the word itself meaning “without power”).

And we serve a God who we worship, in part, because he is all-powerful. If God was not omnipotent, he would “not be a God worth worshiping,” unable to bring justice. The question, then, is how to we steward our God-reflecting power well? How are we leveraging our power for justice? How are we creating margins in our power in Sabbath? And how are we leaning into institutions which utilize power in holy ways and chasten our desire to play god?

Hillbilly Elegy by JD Vance

Hillbilly Elegy by JD Vance

If you want to see just how entrenched our political ideologies are to our identity, meander over to the reviews of JD Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy over at Goodreads. If you prefer to retain your sanity, stay with me here. Vance’s book was timely. Released in 2016, for many it became a window into understanding the Rust Belt that propelled Donald Trump to victory. Vance, while a Republican himself, doesn’t write the book as a defense of conservative Rust Belt politics (he’s quite critical at times) and certainly it is not written with Donald Trump in mind. And yet, in our politically overheated climate, this is certainly how many have read Vance’s book.

Vance’s book was about something much smaller and much bigger than explaining the 2016 election. He writes the book to provide a window into an area of the country that, while large, is largely anonymous to many Americans, myself included. “Americans call them hillbillies, rednecks, or white trash,” Vance says, “I call them neighbors, friends and family.” 

Vance, who hails from Middletown, Ohio, and has roots in Eastern Kentucky invites us into his Appalachian world. These are the descendants of the Scotch-Irish, who dug America’s coal, forged America’s steel and built America’s automobiles. They were faithful churchgoers and fiercely patriotic. But with the shuttering of coal mines and the decline of industrial America, it’s a people who have struggled to enter the 21st century and whose self-perception as hard working and devout Christians has been hollowed out. The data shows a people who are, despite how they project themselves, deeply reliant on government assistance, and AWOL from the church. As opportunity has vanished, so has church attendance and belief in the American Dream. It has been replaced by broken families, liquor, painkillers, and heroin.

Washed and Waiting by Wesley Hill

Washed and Waiting by Wesley Hill

What a unique (and desperately needed) book!  In Washed and WaitingHill is earnest, honest, and incisive. The book is part autobiography, part practical theology, part self-help: and all of this in 150 pages. 

Chapter 1 alone is worth the price of the book.  After the Prelude, where Hill, sets up the book on an autobiographical level, he digs into the practical theology as it relates to homosexual practice.  This book isn't the place to look for a robust defense of the orthodox theology on homosexual practice (which Hill holds to).  There are plenty of other places to look for that (I would recommend Sam Alberry's Is God Anti-Gay? and Kevin DeYoung's What Does the Bible Really Teach About Homosexuality?). 

What Hill does do in this section is confront head-on what to do with the fact that for those with homosexual inclinations, if they are committed to following a biblical Christianity, there will always (on this side of eternity) be an unsatisfied longing.  What do we make of this?  How could God not want his children to be happy and to experience love? 

The Bruised Reed by Richard Sibbes

The Bruised Reed by Richard Sibbes

Richard Sibbes was born in Suffolk, England in 1577 and was a minister of the gospel until his death in 1635. Perhaps the gentlest of the Puritans, The Bruised Reed speaks gospel comfort to those struggling with their faith. "Sibbes never wastes the student's time," wrote Charles Spurgeon, "he scatters pearls and diamonds with both hands."

Following his compassionate healing of a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath, Matthew quotes from Isaiah 42 and says that Jesus will not break off "a bruised reed" and "a smoking flax he shall not quench." Jesus is filled with tenderness and mercy to those who are hurt, broken, and weak. The bruising is, in fact, from him. Sibbes shares that "After conversion we need bruising so that reeds may show themselves to be reeds, and not oaks." This bruising shows us that "we live by mercy."