Book Review

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.

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."

Look and Live by Matt Papa

Look and Live by Matt Papa

Ironically, for a group caricatured as being strict and unfeeling, the Puritan's greatest legacy is the insight that we are worshiping creatures whose beliefs and actions flow from our affections, not our minds. It is our desires, not our intellect that direct us.

Matt Papa takes this key insight and unpacks it beautifully in his book Look and Live. We are worshipers, created for worship from the womb. If we want to fight the grip of sin in our lives, Papa argues, we need only look at the greatest and most glorious object of our worship: God, who most powerfully reveals his glory on the cross. As Papa says, "we worship our way into sin. We must worship our way out."

The glory of God is no trivial thing. "The glory of God is the reason why every person in the Bible who encounters God nearly falls dead. It changes you. When we see God, we get small." Papa looks at God's glory in redemptive history and in nature, stoking the awe of our hearts.

Crucial Conversations by Patterson, Grenny, McMillan, and Switzler

Crucial Conversations by Patterson, Grenny, McMillan, and Switzler

I didn’t know what I was stepping into. Strained voices were raised. Pointed accusations flew like snowballs across the narrow distance between the parties. Trying to scramble for control of the situation I treaded water verbally, first succeeding, then flailing, and then failing monumentally, shifting from mediator to combatant in one fell swoop. It was one of my most significant moments of failure as a pastor and a man.

Your failure in the midst of crucial conversations might not be as dramatic. In fact, maybe you failed by turning tail and running. That’s what is so difficult about these turning-point moments: failure is easy, success is hard.

Crucial Conversations is aimed at equipping the reader with a number of tools to use to navigate high pressure and high consequence conversations. Who couldn't improve in their ability to navigate these conversations? Unlike a lot of books in a similar genre, the authors present several different tools in the course of the book to help navigate these conversations. The book is therefore very content rich and not easy to reduce to a simple technique or phrase. Here is the most concise summary I can come up with: in the midst of crucial conversations, check your heart, listen well, and respond thoughtfully.

Culture Making by Andy Crouch

Culture Making by Andy Crouch

Culture Making was a book I wanted to read but was afraid to read.  I suppose I've been a little worn down in recent years by evangelicals' obsession with all things culture.  Andy Crouch stands well above the fray, though.

What was perhaps most surprising about Culture Making to me was the scope of Crouch's vision.  Crouch takes on the whole thing in his book: what is culture? What would it mean for Christians to influence culture? What does the Bible have to say about culture? How we can make culture that will have a lasting and gospel-centered impact?

Each of these Crouch handles masterfully. 

Surprised by Hope by NT Wright

Surprised by Hope by NT Wright

I heartily endorse NT Wright's thesis: a robust doctrine of the bodily resurrection of Christ necessarily impacts our lives.  Wright spends much of his book firing shots across the bows of both the fundamentalists and the liberals.

Wright attacks the fundamentalists' belief in a non-corporeal resurrection, grounded in an implicit dualism.  It's an important attack.  This idea that the real part of us is our immortal souls which will, alone, live on in heaven, is not just non-scriptural, it's anti-scriptural.  Furthermore, as NT Wright points out, it has several deleterious effects: it undermines any urgency for the church to do her work here and now; it can create apathy to change unjust social institutions; and it can lead toward a truncated understanding of how we are to respect and appreciate the bodily existence God has granted us.

Every Good Endeavor by Tim Keller

Every Good Endeavor by Tim Keller

"In the beginning, then, God worked.” It’s from this simple platform that pastor and author Tim Keller begins his project of redeeming the goodness of work. It’s a simple platform, but its implications are far-reaching. Keller continues, “Work was not a necessary evil that came into the picture later, or something human beings were created to do but that was beneath the great God himself. No, God worked for the sheer joy of it. Work could not have a more exalted inauguration" (pp.34-35). Everything flows out this profound reality. Work did not come after the fall; no, humans were given the task of work before there was sin. And, in fact, our work uniquely mirrors back our God's perfect work from eternity.

Bad Religion by Ross Douthat

Bad Religion by Ross Douthat

I was really surprised by this book. I wasn't expecting something as thoughtful and constructive in tone, but should have known better given Douthat's strong portfolio.

The first half of the book is a post-WWII history of American Christendom. In dealing with such a broad scope (Douthat carefully divides the history into three camps: evangelical, mainline, and Catholic) in such a small space, Douthat has to make some choices in winnowing the story down. There are some that I took exception to, but overall, I he writes a compelling history and even in his editorializing, he usually hits the target.

In the second half of the book Douthat takes on various heresies that have crept into all three of the camps in various ways (the gnostic gospel, the prosperity gospel, the gospel of self, the politicized gospel, etc).

The Pilgrim's Progress by John Bunyan

The Pilgrim's Progress by John Bunyan

I first read Bunyan's masterpiece in college. It was lost on my youth. Being groomed by some thoughtful literature professors who had an allergic reaction to allegory I found the book dull on every level. I thought it was trite, preachy, simplistic, and I didn't connect with it on an emotional level.

I picked up the book again because of a nagging suspicion that it was me, not Bunyan that failed in our first meeting. I'm so glad I did.