Book Reviews

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 It has been replaced by broken families, liquor, painkillers, and heroin.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."

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.

The Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis

The Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis

I recently re-read Thomas a Kempis’s The Imitation of Christ after fifteen years. The years that passed made the book that much sweeter. It was made sweeter still by the updated translation which made the book that much more powerful. At over 600 years, The Imitation of Christ sparkles with clarity and application, time apparently hasn't worn any sharpness off its edges.

If The Imitation of Christ was merely the second of its four books, it would be a masterpiece. The second book, titled, “The Interior Life,” challenges and consoles, cuts and bandages. A Kempis's book is a strong call to the imitation of our Savior, and yet is seasoned with profound grace. It is, quite simply, a book every Christian should read.

A God of Many Understandings? by Todd Miles

A God of Many Understandings? by Todd Miles

Miles begins A God of Many Understandings? with an event I remember well: “On Sunday morning, January 18, 2009, Gene Robinson, the Episcopal bishop of New Hampshire, stepped to a podium near the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC, to open the inauguration festivities for Barack Obama with an invocation and began his prayer, ‘O god of our many understandings, we pray that you will…’” (1). That simple opening to his prayer hit me like a tidal wave that day. “O god of our many understandings (?!)” At the same time I felt befuddlement, anger, and a sense that in that very phrase, Robinson had profoundly captured the essence of our modern religious sensibilities.

There have been plenty of books published over the recent years that have decried the slippage in the American church’s commitment to the exclusive claims of the gospel. But I promise you none have been written that are quite like this. The ambitious nature of Miles’s book is remarkable. The book is a biblical-theological tour de force that deals with a host of issues relating to the topic of the exclusive nature of the gospel.

The Shack by William P. Young

The Shack by William P. Young

I picked up Young's The Shack first during its meteoric rise after it was published. For whatever reason I had trouble with it and eventually set it down. The Shack was made into a movie this spring and with its resurgent popularity, I figured it was a must read as I prepared to teach a class on the Trinity.

The youngest daughter of Mack, a middle aged man with an abusive past, is abducted and murdered early in the book. As Mack wrestles with God in the midst of this tragedy, he is invited to a remote shack by the Trinity. Mack spends a day with the Trinity (the Father represented by an African American woman, the Son by an Arab man, and the Holy Spirit by an Asian woman). 

There are some really wonderful things about The Shack that make the book sparkle. It's no surprise to me that The Shack has made the impact it has in so many lives. The thing that drew me to the book-- its depiction of the Trinity--is at times well-articulated and emotionally touching.

Creativity Inc. by Ed Catmull

Creativity Inc. by Ed Catmull

Ed Catmull is one of the geniuses behind Pixar, the incredible animation company that revolutionized what we expect from animated films. The first 80+ pages of Creativity, Inc. are about Catmull's own story and the founding of Pixar. The rest of the book tilts more toward what the title promises: leadership strategies to unleash creativity. I enjoyed Catmull's story, but if you want to jump to the leadership strategies, you can leapfrog the first part.

Catmull's strategies won't strike anyone as particularly innovative. You'll likely have heard or intuited a lot of what he says, but what I found particularly inspiring was the tenacity and single-minded focus Catmull and the other leaders at Pixar had in implementing simple but profound ideas. And perhaps most impressive is Catmull himself, clearly a leader who embodies the ideals he puts forth.

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.