Category Archives: Book Review

How Do We Think? (A Book Review)

We’re always being told what to think, but not how to think- enter Alan Jacobs.

how to think coverPolarization is the mark of our current social, political, and religious environments. I don’t know if there’s another time where so many people are on opposite extremes of so many different issues- from healthcare, to gun control, to climate change, to foreign policy, and many more. It is into this extreme environment that Alan Jacobs speaks a word of calmness, clarity and, yes, even grace through his newest book How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds.

Jacob’s book is, both, timely and important because he does what the title of the book says- he advises the reader on how to think, not what to think. Through a book that is both well researched, and in a style that is deep and engaging, Jacobs invites the reader to examine the influences and prejudices inherent in our thinking.

My main takeaway from the book is two-fold. First, is the realization that we believe that the things we think, and the positions we take are true, or else we would not be holding those ideas. And because we believe them to be true, we naturally listen to others who confirm what we hold to be true. Even if we are truly not sure what we think about an issue, we will gravitate toward others who are unsure and hold those with a defined position as suspicious. What Jacobs rightly notes is that when we are faced with another idea, although we may find that idea repulsive, instead of labeling only the idea repulsive, we label the one who holds the idea as repulsive- or what Jacobs borrows from Susan Harding and calls the “repugnant cultural other.” Jacobs’ main goal in the book is to show that the “RCO” is indeed a human being and realize that we might, under different circumstances, hold the same view that we find repulsive.

Second, there is a deceptive argument that promotes eliminating emotions, both positive and negative, collectively called biases and, instead, use pure reason. Jacobs notes, however, that reason alone is an “insufficient guide” because our biases actually help us navigate through life because without them “the cognitive demands of having to assess every single situation would be so great as to paralyze us” (86). Feelings and biases actually help us make quick decisions when we cannot stop and rationally assess every situation or decision on a day-by-day, moment-by-moment basis. He warns, however, that we want our biases to be the right biases and that begins by “learning to think with the best people, and not to think with the worst” (87).

These are my top two takeaways but there are many other things that I could note that are interesting. Overall Jacobs writes a fascinating book and it may be one that I routinely give away to graduating seniors and college students. My most telling endorsement is that when I finished the book, I was glad I read it.

I received this book from Blogging for Book in exchange for this review.

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Heavy on “What” but Light on “How”

9781601429537I was immediately drawn into this book. In the preface, Erwin McManus reveals that while he was writing The Last Arrow: Save Nothing For the Next Life, he had cancer but did not know it. He admits that writing a book about living without fear and regret became a prophetic word to himself as he edited the book under the cloud of his diagnosis.

In the body of the book, McManus uses the story of Elisha and King Joash in 2 Kings 13:14-19 and the image of striking arrows as the jumping off point to talk about we can live a life where we hold nothing back. McManus rightfully reminds us, “You have one life to use everything you have been entrusted with, so you might as well save nothing for the next life” (30).

In the subsequent chapters McManus speaks to ideas like letting go of the past, recognizing that other people depend on your life and knowing what we want out of life. He speaks to these ideas with the familiar interlacing of personal stories and biblical illustrations.

One of the issues I have with “pop” Christian books, and The Last Arrow falls into this category, is that it is hard for the reader to relate to many of the personal stories of the author. I’ve never had a conversation with a billionaire. I’ve never been to war-torn Syria. I’ve never been disinvited to speak at a large conference. It’s not to say that the reader cannot gain insights from the life experience of the author but that life experience has to be translatable to the life experience of the reader and at times McManus’ life experience doesn’t translate well.

That brings me to the one main critique I have of The Last Arrow: it is heavy on the “what” but light on the “how.” I think the main ideas McManus presents are right and true but in order to engage more readers and move those readers to a lasting change in the way they live their lives, it would be helpful if McManus spent more time explaining how we find great people with which to surround ourselves. Or how do we discover who we are? Or how do we know what parts of our pasts we need to set on fire, like Elisha did? Readers that see this weakness can fill in the gaps themselves as they work through the book’s ideas and their implications.

Overall, however, the book was an engaging read and one that if you’ve read other of McManus’ books, I think you’ll appreciate. I received this book from Blogging for Books in exchange for this review.

Book Review: “How We Love”

9780735290174In a couple of weeks our church will begin a sermon series on marriage and relationships. To get ready, I’ve been reading several books on Christian marriage. One of those is How We Love: Discover Your Love Style, Enhance Your Marriage by Milan and Kay Yerkovich.

In the book, the authors’ main idea is that the way we express love comes from the impressions and imprints of love we received through our childhood (6). As the joke (or perhaps the truth) of counseling goes: It’s all your parent’s fault. They propose that the way we learn to express love, beginning as children, starts as we remember how we were comforted. It’s our memory of how we were comforted by our parents or caregiver that lays the foundation for how we love when we get older.

They go on to outline four different love styles: Avoider, Pleaser, Vacillator and Chaotic. These were actually fairly helpful and I could see my love style and that of my spouse fairly easily. They follow the introduction of the love styles with several chapters on what dynamics tend to occur when different styles marry one another. What are the dynamics, for example, when a Vacillator marries an Avoider?

The final section of the book is devoted to being able to understand the love style of yourself and your spouse and how to get behind the barriers that have been built up and love in a fuller and more intimate way. Two themes that dominate this section are being able to understand your emotions and being able to openly communicate.

One of the positives of the book is that the love styles that Milan and Kay describe are helpful. It’s pretty easy to see which style you most identify with. One of the negatives however, is that most people fit into multiple categories. I understand that there are infinite combinations of how these love styles can be manifested and while they do address that problem it would be helpful if they spent a little more time on it.

One other negative is that in the final section, I think some of the couple emotion and communication exercises they suggest might be a bit more than the average couple would feel doing solely based on what they read in a book. I know part of what the authors want is for couples to move past the awkwardness and into better intimacy. But for the 99% of us who aren’t marriage and family therapists and who don’t have years of experience in these situations, perhaps there is a danger in doing them wrong. I can easily see how couples would be intimidated by some of their suggested exercises.

Overall, I think the book is helpful and provides talking points for couples- even if some of the exercises might be a little too clinical or advanced. It is also helpful that the authors approach marriage from a Christian background. My take is, like with any book, dissect what you read and apply what is helpful for you and your relationship.

I received this book from Blogging for Books in exchange for this review.

Review: Good but falls short sometimes

9781601429513Some parts I agree, some parts I disagree.

That is a good summary of my reaction after reading Brian Zahnd’s book, Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God: The Scandalous Truth of the Very Good News. The title of the book is, of course, a play on the famous sermon given by Jonathan Edwards preach in 1741, entitled “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Zahnd is correct in pressing the reader to rediscover God as a God of love who showed us his full nature in the person and work of Jesus. He writes, “God couldn’t say all he wanted to day in the form of a book, so he said it in the form of a human life. Jesus is what God has to say!” (50).

Zahnd is right in his acknowledgement that God’s anger and God’s wrath have become a point of morbid fascination with some denominations and sects of Christianity- especially within the United States. And while there are obviously biblical passages that speak of God’s wrath, it is appropriate to allow Jesus to have the final word on points where there appear to be tension. That is the major idea presented in the first three chapters of the book and an idea that I fully agree with. I also enjoyed his interpretation of Revelation found in the closing four chapters of the book.

However, it is the middle three chapters that caused me to pause and caused me to really consider how to judge Zahnd’s work. Two chapters deal with atonement theology and the third deals with hell. In the chapters on atonement, Zahnd essentially takes a view of atonement traditionally called the moral influence theory. Moral influence theory sees Jesus’s death as a great demonstration of God’s love that causes “a change in [the] sinners’ heart so that they are drawn to God” (Olsen, The Mosaic of Christian Belief, 258-259). Zahnd says something similar: “Jesus was faithful to embody God’s will even to the point of shedding his blood as he forgave sinners. Jesus did not shed his blood to pay off God in the form of a ritual sacrifice…Jesus shed his blood in faithful obedience to his Father’s will, demonstrating divine forgiveness even as he was crucified!” (105). For Zahnd, Jesus’ death was an example of love and an example of forgiveness.

What Zahnd fails to confront are the multitude of verses and illusions that see Jesus’s death through the lens of sacrifice. He doesn’t mention Paul’s argument in Romans or the  use of “propitiation,” for example. I’m not saying that all of Zahnd’s interpretation of Jesus’s death is wrong, however, it is incomplete. For a full discussion of atonement theology, read N.T. Wright’s The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion. Wright begins at the same staring point as Zahnd: Is it theologically correct to say that Jesus’s death was a punishment for sin?, however Wright is able to explore that question to much greater depths.

The third chapter that gave me pause is Zahnd’s treatment of hell. He begins the chapter by pondering if Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel is in hell. He then goes on to wonder about Anne Frank and the other victims of the Holocaust or the devote Muslim woman who shows charity and worships the best she knows how. He is right in noting that the “simplistic equation…Christians go to heaven, where they enjoy eternal bliss, while everyone else goes to hell, where they suffer eternal torment” (119-120) is more of a populist notion rather than a biblical idea. However, his main ally is C.S. Lewis who is known lean toward universalism.

I admit we get into trouble when we begin pronouncing eternal judgment on people when that judgment solely belongs to God. But Zahnd’s conclusion that hell represents “refusing to receive and be transformed by the love of God” (137) again isn’t wrong it is just incomplete. He equates hell to the realm of the older brother in the Parable of the Prodigal Son who refuses to come inside for the party. Which is true, but he doesn’t address passages that speak of God’s judgment. Zahnd doesn’t throw out the reality of hell but he redefines hell in a way that might make people uncomfortable because he doesn’t address some of those other biblical passages.

Overall, Zahnd writes a thought-provoking book that challenges the reader to take a fresh look at what it means when the Bible says “God is love.”

I received this book from Blogging for Books in exchange for this review.

Gone: A story of loss and discovery

goneA book for anyone who has experienced loss. Min Kym lost a million dollar Stradivarius violin, or rather had it stolen, you might have experienced a loss or had something stolen or taken away from you. If you have you can easily relate to Kym’s story.

Min Kym was born in South Korea but grew up in London. At a very early age she exhibited a gift playing the violin and inherited the blessed/curse title of “child prodigy.” Her memoir, Gone: A Girl, A Violin, A Life Unstrung tells the story of her discovery, growth,  and refinement of her life as a violin soloist and how it shattered right before her eyes.

The book revolves around three themes. First, the theme of musicianship. Kym is a violinist and the book sets the reader deep into the world of composers, compositions, and the feelings that come from playing and hearing specific pieces of music. To fully engage with this theme, it is helpful (although not necessary) for the reader to have a basic musical background or, at least, an appreciation for classical composers and classical music.

The second theme is of loss. The uniting of Kym and her Stradivarius is similar to finding the love of one’s life. In fact she writes, “There was no question, no doubt. It was love at first sight. love and everything else: honor, obedience, trust, everything” (84). And just like a love, Kym does an excellent job describing the indescribable: the way that a musician and an instrument discover each other and push each other to greatness. Then, in a moment, all of it stolen and Kym invites the reader into her loss, grief, anger, and despair. Her violin isn’t gone, part of herself is gone. Which brings us to the third theme: self-awareness.

Throughout the book Kym finds herself within the struggle of discovering her voice. She struggles with the traditions of her Korean family. She struggles with demanding teachers and a domineering boyfriend. Ultimately, I think Kym discovers that, not only does she have a voice, she has two: one as a person without the violin and one as a musician with her violin. She writes, “There was a person lurking somewhere inside me that didn’t need a violin to communicate with people…I did have a voice” (135). At the same time, it’s through music that she speaks to the world, with her Stradivarius gone, will she be able to awaken that voice again? I’ll let you read the book and find out.

I received this book from Blogging for Books in exchange for this review.

Like Reading a Seven-course Meal

as kingfishersOver the last year or two I’ve come to appreciate the pastoral wisdom of Eugene Peterson. Previously I had known him as the writer of The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language but I didn’t know that he was first and foremost a pastor. He was the founding pastor of Christ Our King Presbyterian Church in Maryland and lead the church for 29 years.

As Kingfishers Catch Fire: A Conversation on the Ways of God Formed by the Words of God is a book that is directly birthed out of Peterson’s pastoral experience. In fact, the book is built around 49 of Peterson’s sermons, preached to his church. The book reaches to dramatic heights and delves into phenomenal depths. Peterson’s words show the richness of scripture while making them accessible and able to be brought into the sermons of pastors today.

As Kingfishers Catch Fire is a collection of 49 sermons grouped into seven sections. Each section is introduced by Peterson to invite the reader into the conversation of what it means to preach in the “company” of Moses, David, Isaiah, Solomon, Peter, Paul and John. By “company” Peterson means for the reader to “enter into the biblical company of prototypical preachers and work out of the traditions they had developed under the guidance of the Holy Spirit” (xxi). Peterson achieves this goal beautifully; he speaks of story telling, praying and poetry, allowing our imaginations to be “Jesus-filled,” and preaching theologically.

There is so much good in this book that it is hard to pick just one example- but I’ll do just that. In the introduction to “Preaching in the Company of Isaiah,” Peterson says this: “The unrelenting reality is that prophets don’t fit into our way of life. For a people who are accustomed to fitting God into our lives or, as we like to say, ‘making room for God,’ the prophets are hard to take and easy to dismiss. The God of whom the prophets speak is far too large to fit into our lives. If we want anything to do with God, we have to fit into God” (116). This is such a profound and needed flip that we must do-especially within our Western culture. God cannot be something I just add into my life. As if we can add God to the plate of our already full lives. We must flip our understanding to see that we fit into God. We join God. We are found in God. We become a part of what God is doing. Peterson points out such an important point in this short paragraph- and that is just one example.

This is one of the books I will continually reference and quote within my own sermons and sermon preparation. When this book is released on May 16, 2017, it needs to be on your list to buy, read and reflect upon.

I received this book from Blogging for Book in exchange for this review. Find more information on the book here.

Or watch this extremely interesting short-film featuring Eugene Peterson and Bono talking together about Psalms.

Talking With God: Not deep but still refreshing

9781601429445Sometimes praying is hard. If prayer wasn’t hard, then some of our greatest theologians, scholars and pastors wouldn’t have spent the time and energy writing books about prayer. In his book Talking with God: What To Say When You Don’t Know How To Pray, Adam Weber adds his voice to many others on the subject of prayer. Weber is the lead pastor of Embrace, based in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

Weber writes a book that feels personal, even though it’s story-filled and light on in-depth teaching. Talking with God is theologically sound but basic. There is nothing earth-shaking in the book and, in a way, that’s refreshing. Weber doesn’t project to know a way to pray that “changes everything” or a “new” method of prayer, what he brings are simple ideas about prayer. They are ideas that the reader can put into practice no matter how long they have been a believer. This book is not for someone looking for an in-depth study on prayer, however, this book is a good introduction on prayer for a non-Christian, a new Christian or a student. But it does have good reminders on what it means to pray and how we can pray within the different circumstance in which we find ourselves.

Overall, it was a pleasant read and it is one that I’ll keep in order to pass along to someone looking for an introduction to prayer.

I received this book from Blogging for Book in exchange for this review.