Category Archives: Book 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.

 

 

 

Half is Enough: A Review of “The Lesser Bohemians”

After 116 pages, I couldn’t read any more. Normally, I feel that it is my obligation to read the books I receive from Blogging for Books in their entirety, even if it is a book that I don’t like or have issue with, before posting a review. However, after 116 pages of The Lesser Bohemians by Eimear McBride, I simply could not persuade myself to read any more. The novel tells the story of a young woman from Ireland who moves to London to go to the university to study drama. She gets romantically involved with an older, semi-famous London actor and the novel follows their “romance.” The reason I couldn’t make myself continue reading the story are three-fold.

First, the manner in which the book is written is unique. The format isn’t like any book I’ve seen. It is written in an poetic style- almost as if the novel was one epic poem. Phrases are short, choppy and incomplete. While it has an artistic beauty, it is not very enjoyable to read- like holding a bouquet of roses with the thorns still attached. The opening lines of the book give a good example: “Lo lay London Liverpool Street I am getting to on the train. Legs fair jigged from halfway there. Dairy Milk on this Stansted Express and cannot care for stray sludge splinters in the face of England go by (7). I found that it took me several minutes to regain the flow of the text each time I picked up the book the read and this fact made me less inclined to pick up the book after each sitting.

Second, the plot of the book revolves solely on sex and a misguided sense of love. Every few pages tells of another sexual encounter either between the young woman and the actor or between the young woman and a man met at the bar or between the young woman and her married roommate. But the larger issue is the misguided sense of love. Somewhere in the Western consciousness, lust has replaced love and abuse has replaced relationship. I feel I could convincing argue that the actor engages in both emotional and physical abuse of the young woman. Ultimately this sense of love is unfulfilling and pointless. In one passage the actor tells the young woman, “Do you think I don’t understand? I know all about having a good time. Having it and having it until it’s everything turned to sh-t and you can’t believe the things you’ve done, look at me, is that what you want? (106). McBride writes true words here. What the reader sees in the characters (at least up to this point) is their emotional emptying and perhaps there is an emotional filling that takes places in the remainder of the novel but that leads me to the third critique.

Third, I’m 116 pages into the novel and instead of the story driving me forward its conclusion, I find that as a reader, I don’t care. I don’t care about the characters. Perhaps that changes in the second half of the novel- but I don’t care enough to find out. The reason I don’t care is because I feel like a don’t know them. Yes, I see their romantic encounters but the characters just do things and the reader doesn’t know why and without that connection, I find little desire to continue in their story. I received this book from Blogging for Book in exchange for this review.

A Must Read: A Review

9781101906422A must read!

There have been few books that have challenged me more than Tom Krattenmaker’s Confessions of a Secular Jesus Follower: Finding Answers in Jesus for Those Who Don’t Believe (Convergent, 2016). Krattenmaker currently works as the communications director at Yale Divinity School and is a columnist for USA Today where he writes about religion in public life. He is not a Christian. Yet he tries to live by the teachings of Jesus. He professes the sentiment of many in today’s culture: “One can sense a respect for Jesus, even a fascination with him, despite the decline of institutionalized Christianity” (13-14).

Krattenmaker is a self-proclaimed secularist. He confesses, “I do not believe Jesus died for the forgiveness of my sins…nor do I believe that it is literally and factually true that Jesus was, and is, God- which is not surprising when you realize I am not convinced of the existence of God either” (9). What he is, is a man who wants to “engage Jesus without being Christian” and wants to create a space where “interested nonreligious people [can] do something that society and the religious affiliation categories would apparently forbid [them] to do: seriously follow Jesus. That is to say, to attempt, as much as it’s possible, to act as he did, to treat other people as he did, to understand life as he did” (11).

In the book, Krattenmaker takes current issues- religious polarization, sexuality, worry, over-incarceration, racial tensions- and tries to show how Jesus speaks into each of these issues. If we follow the teachings of Jesus, he argues, then we will begin to examine these issues from a new perspective and hopefully discover a better way of being human.

What makes this book challenging is that I’ve read “Christian” books that failed to do what Krattenmaker successfully does- let the words of Jesus speak into contemporary issues. He is able to convincingly argue that Jesus’ words and actions still matter in the 21st century. He’s completely right when he says, “there is something in this figure of Jesus that is challenging, compelling and worth taking to heart” (206).

Now, being a person who believes that Jesus is the Son of God, who came to defeat sin and evil in his death and resurrection, I believe that Krattenmaker stands one or two steps short of fully understanding the message of Jesus. That being said, I believe he understands the message better than (sadly) many Christians. If others, through this book, discover the message of Jesus (even in a “secular” way), I am hopeful that as people try to live by the teachings of Jesus, and as they engage with the Bible (the place where those teachings are found) they will find themselves drawn to the God that Jesus represents.

Two weaknesses of the the book. First, there is some mild language throughout- somewhere between a PG and PG-13 rating. Second, Krattenmaker doesn’t fully answer the why question. Why would someone want to care about the plight of the incarcerated, love those unlike them, or care about what their sex life is doing to themselves and others? If this life is all there is, there is really no incentive for me to look out for anyone other than myself. Appealing to an altruistic side of humanity doesn’t work in the long term because there will always be those who will use it to gain power for themselves. Human beings are not inherently good, we are inherently selfish, greedy and violent. When left to ourselves, the result is always more Lord of the Flies than Shangri-La. But that reality is the message of Jesus. Jesus, God with us to do for us what we could not do for ourselves- namely, to save us from the sin and evil that are inside of us.

In the end, I’m glad that I read the book and if you are a pastor, minister, lay church leader then it is a must read. It will give you great insight into the mind of  the many people who are interested in Jesus but simply cannot understand the contradictions that appear to lay between Jesus and the Christian church. I received this book from Blogging for Books in exchange for this review.

Lots of Good, If Not Much New: Review of “The Great Spiritual Migration”

9781601427915When I saw that Brian McLaren had come out with another book, I immediately put it on my Amazon wish list. Naturally I was excited when I saw the opportunity to read and review the book for Blogging for Books. (I received this book from Blogging for Books in exchange for this review.) I’ve read a good number of McLaren’s books over the years and I enjoy them- even if I don’t agree with everything he proposes. The great thing about McLaren is, however, that I don’t think he would want that anyway.

Perhaps it is because I have read a number of his books, that I found The Great Spiritual Migration: How the World’s Largest Religion is Seeking a Better Way to be Christian to be full of good thoughts and ideas while not being particularly novel or new. In the book, McLaren proposes that Christianity needs to change (migrate) in three areas: 1. from being centered on correct belief to being center in love 2. from seeing God as a God of exclusion to a God of reconciliation and multi-ethnic expression 3. from the church being an organized institution to an organizing movement of change. These are all good observations but not unique to McLaren alone.

The negative first. In the opening section, McLaren argues that Christianity needs to migrate from being centered on correct belief to being centered in love. The reason for this re-centering on love is because God is love (1 John 4:8) and that central focus on love should be announced and ritualized (61-62). While I agree with his argument, what McLaren is actually doing is declaring that love is the correct belief of Christianity. “God is love” is a belief and by saying that it should be central is effectively arguing that it is the correct belief. He simply trades “correct” doctrines on God, salvation, ecclesiology, or whatever for a “correct” doctrine of love. I’m not saying he’s wrong (I think he’s right) but we need to be aware of what he’s actually proposing. What Christians do need to focus on is how their beliefs (doctrines) organized in creed, confessions or statements work in practice. For example, if we believe in God, Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, how do I live that out on a day to day basis?

To the positive. McLaren is right when he sites that our world is faced with a four-fold crisis: ecological, economic, sociopolitical and spiritual and religious (166). What is amazing is that the Christian message speaks to all four of them. The main takeaway that I got from the book is that, as Christians, we need to step back from our local church problems and from our denominational problems and see that “the problems we need to solve are bigger that Lutheranism, Orthodoxy, Presbyterianism, or Catholicism. We have Christian problems…[and] ultimately, the problems we face are not just Christian problems, they are human problems” (145). And if the problems we face are human problems, ecological, economic, sociopolitical and religious, then Christians need to show how faith in the crucified and risen Jesus speaks to each of those problems. And how do we do that? McLaren rightly says it’s by doing to small things, the individual things and trusting that “God can get done through all of us what none of us can do alone” (198). When I do this, I’m not (and I love this line) “playing God, I’m playing with God, at play in God’s good world, where everything is holy” (198).

Overall I enjoyed the book and would recommend it to someone who was beginning to think about these issues for the first time. If you’re familiar with McLaren’s other books, The Great Spiritual Migration may not hold the wealth of new ideas that you hoped for.

The Life of a Spiritual Mentor

9781101906354One of the first blog posts I wrote was on the fact that everything today is deletable. In the digital age, there is the possibility that the things we create could last forever or there is the possibility that everything could vanish- be deleted. What is amazing about Love, Henri: Letters on the Spiritual Life is, not that these letters were written, but that these letters were saved. Henri Nouwen saved the letters written to him and those that received letters from him kept them as well.

This book, a collection of Nouwen’s letters, dating from 1973 to directly before his death in 1996, offer both a great insight into the life, mind and spirituality of Henri Nouwen but also offer an insight into our lives and spirituality as well. Throughout the letters, two pieces of wisdom are repeated over and over again. First, prayer. In his letters, Henri often speaks about spending time in prayer. He goes to monasteries to pray, he leads prayer retreats, he often offers his prayers to those he writes to. Second, solitude. For Henri prayer and solitude go hand in hand but they are also separate. He writes about solitude offering the ability to read, reflect and write. It appears that Henri fostered a habit similar to Jesus in making time of solitude and prayer. In his letters he continually offers that advice. He writes to one former student who was feeling overwhelmed with graduate work, “In order to live a hospitable life- not just a hospitable year- you need a lot of time for yourself to read, to write, to study, to meditate, to pray, to just be alone. If you do not claim that for yourself, you are not hospitable enough because you do not create the quiet restful place where people can find healing” (17).

Henri’s letters are loving, caring and yet he is open and honest with his struggles and questions of what he is supposed to do and where God is leading his life. I found his words moving, deeply theological and gracious. This is a book to walk through slowly  in order to let Henri Nouwen’s wisdom to sink into your soul. I recommend this book to anyone who longs for advice on living a spiritual life; it is like having Henri Nouwen as a spiritual mentor to the reader as he speaks to you, through these letters to others, while you get a glimpse into his heart. Editor Gabrielle Earnshaw has done a phenomenal job in researching, compiling and writing introductions to every letter. The introductions are especially helpful in order to place each letter within context to the one he is writing to as well as it’s place within the narrative of his life. I recommend that you read this book.

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