Archive for category Book Reviews
I love medieval history. I know that makes me weird. It’s ok.
Once, my father brought one of his friends up to New Hampshire to visit me. While sitting in a diner, my dad says, “Joe, ask him what he does with his free time.” His friend looked at me. I told him, “I study medieval and Byzantine history.” The two of them exchanged a look and my dad just laughed.
It is not that my father thinks I am weird. He gets it. History is the fabric of our own existence, and the medieval world is our most neglected and possibly also most influential thread of our history.
Given an opportunity to read a book that explores the Plantagenet kings who defined what it meant to be English in the Middle Ages, of course someone interested in such history would want to read it.
It should come as no surprise that when the opportunity came up to review The Plantagenets by Dan Jones (Penguin Group – Viking), I leapt at it.
What can I say? Dan Jones was a great job of surveying the period from Henry II’s ascension in 1154 until Henry VII’s ascension in 1485. Being three hundred years makes the job of creating a readable single volume history hard enough; but when those three centuries are filled with Plantagenet intrigue, corruption, marriage, warfare, plague, and any number of other elements, the job’s complexity is multiplied.
Dan Jones’ prose is direct and to the point, but he takes the time to occasionally pause for a brief humanizing anecdote that helps us understand specifics a little better. He balances his views of all of the Plantagenet kings and avoids the generalized caricatures you find in many works on the period.
Most importantly, Jones does not gloss over significant events. He does not simply note, as many histories do, that the Hundred Years’ War was a catalyst for the rising use of English as England pulled away from France. He takes the time to note the progress of this change, particularly focusing on Edward III’s Pleading in English Act of 1362 which changed the official language of the courts of England. I have read a lot of popular histories of the Middle Ages, and Jones is the first to note this seminal event.
In brief, I found Dan Jones’ book to be well worth the investment of money and time to explore it. So much of the book illuminates the seed ideas of our modern English-speaking culture.
Paul Stutzman lost his wife to cancer. A Mennonite by birth and a restaurant manager by trade, Stutzman was used to being home and staying close. His family was very conservative, his life was under control. But the loss of his beloved Mary threw him for a loop he could not handle.
Unsure of how to grieve, he set off on a journey to find peace in his loss. This is not uncommon. What was a bit uncommon was that Stutzman decided to make his journey on the Appalachian Trail.
He hiked all 2,187 miles of the Appalachian Trail on a journey to find peace, to find God. He picked the wettest year of recent history (2008) and spent most of his 3 month long trek in mud and rain. He and the half dozen other hikers who appear in his book Hiking Through endured storm after storm all the way up the Appalachians. Mourning his loss, hiking through the rain and snow, and missing the birth of his first grandchild – it could have been worse, but I’m not sure how.
But Stutzman did it, and along the way he found new hope in his life. He found peace with his wife’s passing. He found a renewed faith in the God of all.
I have read a couple of books about hiking the AT. My personal favorite, A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson, casts the trail in a humorous but slightly whiny way. (Don’t get me wrong. I love Bryson’s book.) This book, Hiking Through, had a very different take on the trail. For one thing, Stutzman was in much better condition than Bill and his friend Steven Katz. For another, Stutzman had a reason for hiking other than writing a book.
The two books are very different, not only because of the authors but also because of the trail. Bryson section hiked a large chunk of the AT in 1996 and Stutzman thru-hiked in 2008. The separation of twelve years changed the trail quite a bit. The trail is far more popular now, thanks in part to Bryson’s book, and so there is a lot more interest in it.
Hiking as a whole is far more popular now, and the equipment is vastly, dramatically better. Bryson walked with a giant pack, carrying mostly dehydrated noodles and snickers bars. Stutzman hiked with an efficient pack, wearing high tech shoes and eating all kinds of prepared foods.
Another difference is that Bryson and Katz were incredibly unprepared for the hike. Their knowledge of walking and hiking was limited mostly to the midwest and Europe, where ambles are possible. The AT is not an amble and the ill-equipped are miserable. As a result, where Bryson complains of wilderness conditions and maddening shortages of food. Stutzman, on the other hand, came prepared. He knew what he was doing. Bryson, as much as I love him, had no clue.
I love both books for different reasons. Bryson’s book left me laughing so hard I fell out of bed but also having the sneaking suspicion that normal people should stay away from the AT. Stutzman sparked something in my mind, and I thought, “Yeah, I could do that – well, except for sleeping outside.”
(My idea of roughing it is a hotel without a continental breakfast.)
Ross Parsley was the worship pastor at New Life Church in Colorado Springs, Colorado. If the congregation’s name sounds familiar, that’s because you probably heard it on the news. In 2007, the senior pastor Ted Haggard resigned because he was outed by a male prostitute he had been paying for sex and crystal meth. The scandal was on national news.
While the scandal was breaking, Ross was in the hospital with his wife Aimee who was giving birth to their fifth child. He drove from the hospital to the church campus where he was named the interim pastor and served in that capacity until the congregation called Brad Boyd to be their new senior pastor.
In 2010, after eleven months of prayer and discussion, Ross left New Life and moved to Austin, Texas, where he and a small group started a new congregation – ONEChapel.
I didn’t know any of this when I requested his book Messy Church for review. I liked the title, and it resonated with a lot of things I have been thinking lately. But the book was far more than I expected, and I mean that in a good way. I actually wound up posting quotes from the book on my Facebook page, and I am thinking about buying copies for all the leaders in our congregation.
Parsley views the church not as a corporation or even as a pool of people but fundamentally as an interconnected, “messy” set of relationships. All these relationships are valuable. Relationships within families are important, of course, but he also emphasizes the need for multigenerational relationships that provide real mentoring, accountability, and encouragement – both for the young and the old.
This is something I have believed in for a long time. I learned how to study the Scriptures from my father and grandfather, who were often less than “kind” to me because they were provoking me to work harder and dig deeper. My dad was always challenging me to go deeper, to think harder. (We used to have “family church” one night a week, and I had to preach. I still remember “preaching” on Jonah at maybe seven or eight years old and being asked, “But what does it mean?”)
So, Parsley’s ideas really resonated with me.
He spends a lot of time talking about the need for the church to be more like a family, focused on relationships and not affinities. He admonishes the young for demanding that their elders be “cool” and then corrects the elder Christians who do not want to engage and involve the young. He also has some choice words for church leaders who abandon the older generations in favor of the “next generation.”
This multigenerational attitude is necessary for the church to succeed and grow. We must have people of all ages, working together. The older I get, the more convinced I am that the excesses of my own generation have deprived us of the beautiful guidance of our elders (not as in church leaders but as in older).
This was a book worth reading, worth discussing. Maybe I will buy it for our leaders. I haven’t decided yet, but if I don’t, I might still encourage them to buy it for themselves.
I read a digital copy of Messy Church as part of the netgalley.com program. I received no compensation from anyone involved with it for this review.
That’s right, folks. I am going through my library and parting with some volumes. This doesn’t happen very often. If you want one of the books, just leave a comment and I will contact you to get your mailing address. (I don’t recommend leaving your mailing address in the comments because the spambots love unprotected personal information.)
The available books are, in alphabetical order by author:
Batterson, Mark. Primal: A Quest for the Lost Soul of Christianity
Bell, James Stuart (editor). From the Library of A.W. Tozer: A Selection from Writers Who Influenced His Spiritual Journey
Crabb, Larry. Real Church: Does It Exist? Can I Find It?
Davis, Ken. Happily ever Laughter: Discovering the Lighter Side of Marriage
Eldredge, John. Wild at Heart: Discovering the Secret of a Man’s Soul (Revised and Expanded)
Ham, Steve. In God We Trust: Why Biblical Authority Matters for Every Believer
Harris, Alex & Harris, Brett. Do Hard Things: A Teenage Rebellion Against Low Expectations
Lucado, Max. Fearless: Imagine Your Life Without Fear
Stanley, Andy. The Principle of the Path.
Sweet, Leonard. Out of the Question…Into the Mystery
Sweet, Leonard & Viola, Frank. Jesus Manifesto: Restoring the Supremacy and Sovereignty of Jesus Christ
Townsend, John. Where Is God?
These are all like new condition. I might have cracked them once or twice, and I think I might have actually read one or two of them, but they’re just collecting dust. My books are my friends, but these are more like casual acquaintances. Like I said, they’re yours for the asking. Just leave a comment.
I have been remiss in my task of reviewing Mark and Grace Driscoll’s book Real Marriage. I apologize for not getting the sections of the review out, but I have had a lot going on lately.
Last night, I finished up reading the book and I think I am missing something. Everyone was talking about how controversial the chapter “Can We ______?” was because it addressed sexual matters openly.
Maybe I am just hardened from my years of ministry, but I did not find the content of that chapter all that controversial. The Driscolls discuss some sexual behaviors and whether couples are free to indulge in them. For the most part, they drew what I consider a normal line. They wrote things I have thought were common sense.
Now, I am aware that there are a lot of camps in Christianity that behave as if sex is an awful thing you should be embarrassed about. I guess I am just so distant from those groups that I forget the exist from time to time.
Last week, Mark and Grace appeared on The View – that bastion of wisdom and clear thinking (sarcasm) – and I thought Mark summarized things better in five minutes than he could have in this book. When one of the women on the show asked Mark about a particular sexual practice, he said, “I’m not going to put on a striped shirt and blow a whistle for you in your bedroom. That’s between you and your husband.”
That summarizes my view on sexual practices, I think. I am not ashamed of the fact that the Scriptures teach that sex is reserved for the monogamous, heterosexual relationship we call marriage. In that relationship, do whatever keeps that relationship sexually and spiritually (I think in marriage, they’re the same thing, but I digress) engaged. Don’t draw others into that relationship (even in print or on film), but whatever takes you and your spouse deeper into your physical commitment and fulfillment – embrace it.
If you want more details, well – you’re out of luck.
So, while I agreed with the Driscolls, I did not understand why the book was controversial. Is it a good book? Sure, parts of it are ok. It was badly edited, but the content was mostly good. Is it revolutionary? I don’t think it was. It certainly wasn’t for me. But it might be a good tool for those who are struggling with the questions they address and don’t have the biblical literacy to study the Scriptures themselves without a starting point.
As a bit of a history nut and a pastor, I tend to read anything that deals with the historicity of Jesus. There are some great books out there, and there is some real garbage. Unfortunately, the garbage is usually published by the big names, so it is usually packaged better than the quality stuff. Most of the literature once subject is high on delivery and impact, but low on scholarship and objectivity.
Craig Evans’s little book Jesus and His World strikes a solid balance between being academic and popular. It is a well-written presentation of both well known and obscure evidence for the veracity of the Gospels. Evans combines modern archaeology with biblical, rabbinical and secular readings. The result is a satisfying of not necessarily exhaustive study of the subject.
Particularly, he responds to three main ideas:
1. Jesus’ hometown was an uncultured backwater
2. Jesus was illiterate, living in a largely illiterate world
3. The religious practices of the Jews of Jesus’ day do not match the gospels.
In each question, Evans presented substantial evidence, leaving room where evidence is unclear.
It is clear from the beginning that Evans is writing this book to respond to some of the current trends in Jesus scholarship, and he takes a reactive stance throughout the book. I felt that Evans does a good job of offering an overview of evidence that may discredit the pop theories from books like Bart Ehrmann’s Misquoting Jesus and John Dominic Crossan’s Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography. While certainly not a definitive work on the subject and not really presenting any truly original ideas, the book does a good job of covering the basics.
One of the great things about living in Southern New Hampshire is access to GMILCS – that’s Greater Manchester Interlibrary Catalog System for the uninitiated. GMILCS is a network of over twenty libraries, including a couple of college libraries, that pool their resources and allow their patrons almost unfettered access to them. Need a book? Request it online and within a couple of days it will be waiting for you at your local branch. Want to download an ebook or an audiobook? Odds are you can get one for immediate download.
This is a far cry from the days when I would sit in the Belvidere Public Library where my sister was a page. I had an orange library card with a metal impression number, and when I wanted to get an interlibrary loan, I had to fill out a form and wait a couple of weeks for it to arrive. I love our libraries.
Most recently, I downloaded Uranium by Tom Zoellner. Just a couple of clicks on my phone and the files download directly. I can do the same thing with my iPad, but my phone is more convenient – even if the audio quality is sometimes iffy.
Here’s a subject I thought I knew a lot about but really knew nothing about. Uranium’s history is fascinating. I learned about interesting places like Joachimstahl in what is now the Czech Republic and Shinkakolobwe in the Belgian Congo (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo), as well as some interesting people. Some were genius, some were ruthless, but all were interesting.
Did you know that the USA and the USSR spent tens of TRILLIONS of dollars on nuclear weapons we never used? Or that a rogue Pakistani nuclear physicist named Abdul Qadeer (A.Q.) Khan is responsible for the mess of nuclear centrifuges that exist in places like Libya and Iran? Or that Israel has never signed the Nuclear Proliferation Pact and refuses to acknowledge that they possess nuclear weapons – called the worst kept secret in the intelligence community?
Uranium changed the world several times. It brought power and it brought destruction. It’s existence and use is part of the reason that cancer numbers have skyrocketed across the world (and believe it or not, is probably indirectly responsible for my wife’s cancer). Zoellner’s book is a great overview of uranium’s effect on our world. It is worth a read, or a listen.
And if you live in the Greater Manchester area and don’t take advantage of our extraordinary library network, you don’t know what you’re missing.
I like history. I like food.
It would seem that Tom Standage’s volume An Edible History of Humanity would be the kind of book I would enjoy.
You would be correct.
It is not that the book contained any groundbreaking research or insight. It was a relatively light read, although not of the caliber of Bill Bryson’s humorous tomes like At Home or A Short History of Nearly Everything. It was full of snippets from world history, told from the perspective of food.
Standage’s meanders in and out of world history, discussing the role of spices and cereals, agricultural technology and political upheavals. Whether it is the Neolithic revolution or the French Revolution, food and it’s availability played a part; and Standage’s highlights that particular perspective.
I wouldn’t really call this a world history. It is more a collection of anecdotal historical and technological facts. It would have probably profited from an approach that took a little more of medieval history into consideration, and it seemed uneven at times; but that is perhaps more of a personal preference.
In small bits, it was informative and gave you something to think about. I listened to it on and off over the course of a couple of weeks, and it kept me thinking, even if sometimes I just let the narrator ramble. (He sounded a bit like someone doing a Bill Shatner impression.)
You know, for a book on “biblical marriage” there isn’t a lot of Biblical exegesis in here.
The Driscolls do eventually get to the Scriptures when talking about marriage as a covenant instead of as a contract, and I thought that section of this chapter was decent.
Only three chapters in and it is fairly obvious just how inconsistently this book was edited. Some chapters are obviously refined. Others are just plain poorly handled. This chapter sadly falls into the latter category.
It was very uneven, beginning with a strange set of “caricatures” dealing with poor models of manhood. It was more in keeping with something Bill Hybels might have written in the early 80′s than something I would expect from Driscoll in the year 2012. I think it was intended to be humorous.
I felt that the chapter tripped around the edges of being powerful but never got there. While the Driscolls wrote a lot about covenants, they did not really set it in terms of relationship. I would have liked to have seen them draw the parallel of Jesus’ submission to the Father because of their relationship to the submissive relationship of marriage partners.
Thus far, this is the weakest chapter of the book simply because it should have been (and with some editing could have been) so much more than it is. And what is it? It is a weak self help chapter with a little pseudo humor thrown in. That’s my take anyway.
I am on to chapter 2 of Mark Driscoll’s Real Marriage: The Truth About Sex, Friendship & Life Together. Sorry it took me so long to get the second chapter out, but I have had a few other things going on that have kept me busy.
This second chapter develops the idea of marriage beginning as a friendship. This is an interesting theme that, despite the Driscolls’ insistence that it appeared in none of the books they read on marriage, I have seen in just about anything I have read on the topic. (No doubt, this is a curious inconsistency which I can only attribute to reading different books on the subject.)
Mark develops the story of Martin Luther and Katherine von Bora’s marriage as a prime example of marriage trumping attraction, and given what I know about Katherine, I would have to say you could not have picked a better illustration. Katherine was, to put it charitably, not a looker.
Over time, Martin and Katherine seem to have developed a bond grounded more in their shared interests and their own peculiarities than on physical attraction. Given that they had six children (two lived to adulthood), one can assume that the couple got past their physical differences and found happiness.
Personally, I feel that Driscoll is right on about the necessity of having friendship with your spouse, and he develops a theme that people forget too easily in this world of easy-out relationships. He writes:
…true friendship involves conflict and hard discussions as God reveals sin and repentance, and reconciliation takes place.
This declaration is beneficial not just in marriage but in all relationships. I have any number of friends who, over the years, have found some kind of small fault or slight on my part and abandoned the relationship. The most recent trend seems to be to declare their intention by “unfriending” me on Facebook. This is rather childish, if you ask me, but it is grounded in a fundamental misunderstanding of friendship.
Driscoll hits the nail on the head. Friendship must involve those hard discussions. My friendship with my wife has had to incorporate some very difficult conversations, about our pasts, our present and our future. At times, we have screamed until we wept; and more times than we care to remember, we have sat across from one another with no words left. Because we bare our souls to one another, our souls are able to entwine more closely. We find the Spirit of God healing the wounds by knitting us together.
You cannot assume you are friends with your spouse. You must take the time necessary to build that friendship, to know when and where certain things are appropriate, to know each other’s boundaries.
Of course, then Driscoll descends to one of my least favorite mnemonic devices, acrostic, to drive home the point. I shall reproduce the acronym without comment because I loathe devices like this like a snail loathes salt and a Yankees fan loathes the Red Sox:
F – Fruitful
R – Reciprocal
I – Intimate
E – Enjoyable
N – Needed
D – Devoted
S – Sanctifying
I have no problem with Driscoll’s point. I just don’t like acronyms and acrostics.
Let’s close with the closing line, written by both Mark and Grace:
also found that by always working on our friendship, the rest of marriage seems to sort itself out in time. So we would commend to you the goal of devoting the rest of your life to being a better friend to your spouse.
(As an aside: I would heartily agree, although I would also recommend that you develop one other, confidential and trusting relationship with a godly friend of your own gender – someone who can encourage you in your relationship to your spouse as well as be an outlet for you. This can be your pastor, a friend, a mentor or a peer. What is important is that they are going to encourage you by letting you vent and then giving godly advice that will strengthen your friendship with your wife.)