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Category Archives: Book Reviews

Jim and Cindy Siegfried are close friends to many people. I count them as dear friends.

I remember when Jim was diagnosed with cancer several years ago. The prognosis was not good.

Treatment began – and Jim’s spiritual growth curve turned straight up. So did Cindy’s.

They launched a ministry called F.a.i.t.H. – Facing An Illness Through Him. Dozens of families have been touched through the support group they established. They have inspired me – and been my counselors on more than one occasion.

I was privileged to baptize a dear man Jim led to Christ in the hospital, just before he died. It was the first time that I sprinkled someone – and it was thoroughly Christian!

When I asked Jim to share his testimony as part of my sermon in chapel at Mid America Baptist Theological Seminary, Jim upstaged me. I was glad. After all, my sermon was soon forgotten – but not his words and example.

Several weeks ago, the news came – Jim was declared cancer-free. He could only weep and praise God.

Now, Cindy has written the story of how she persevered, as the caregiver. The book is honest in its description of the roller-coaster of emotion. It is also filled with humor and faith in our sovereign and good Father.

I highly recommend Cindy’s book. She reveals the secrets to joy when you have to take a trip you would rather avoid – and cannot. She is quite a writer!

John Piper expresses it so well – we live in an age of emotionally fragile people. He writes…

I have found – in my pastoral disappointments, discouragements there is a great power for perseverance in keeping before me life of men who surmounted great obstacles in obedience to God’s call by the power of God’s grace. I need very much this inspiration from another age, because I know that I am, in great measure, a child of my times.

One of pervasive marks of our times is emotional fragility. It is in air we breathe. We are easily hurt. We pout and mope easily. We break easily. Our marriages break easily. Our faith breaks easily. Our happiness breaks easily. And our commitment to the church breaks easily. We are easily disheartened, and it seems we have little capacity for surviving and thriving in the face of criticism and opposition.

A typical emotional response to trouble in the church is to think, “If that’s the way they feel about me, then they can find themselves another pastor.” We see very few models today whose lives spell out in flesh and blood the rugged words, “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you fall into various trials” (James 1:3).

When historians list the character traits of the last third of twentieth century America, commitment, constancy, tenacity, endurance, patience, resolve and perseverance will not be on the list. The list will begin with an all-consuming interest in self-esteem. It will be followed by the subheadings of self-assertiveness, and self-enhancement, and self-realization. And if you think that you are not at all a child of your times just test yourself to see how you respond in the ministry when people reject your ideas.

We need help here. When you are surrounded by a society of emotionally fragile quitters, and when you see a good bit of this ethos in yourself, you need to spend time with people – whether dead of alive – whose lives prove there is another way to live. Scripture says, “Be imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises” (Hebrews 6:12).

I would agree with Piper – one way to develop emotional toughness is by reading biographies of Christians through the ages whom God has used.

Where to start? Here’s a fairly easy-to-read beginning place:

To the Golden Shore by Courtney Anderson (bio of Adoniram Judson, first American Missionary, to Burma)

The God I Love, by Joni Eareckson (her story)

Born Again, by Chuck Colson

The Autobiography of George Muller

God really believes that he is the most worthy, most majestic, magnificent, glorious, stunningly beautiful being in the universe. And he is fixated on the certainty that only he deserves worship – that to him alone belong honor, glory, and praise forever and forever. With red-rimmed, stinging eyes and burning hair, all we can say is – he is right. He is astonishingly beautiful, utterly majestic and perfect in the symmetries of justice and righteousness, knowledge, and wisdom. He is as hypnotically compelling as a surging forest fire and ten times as dangerous. He is out of control – ours, not his.

From Tim Stoner’s book, The God Who Smokes

Read my son Joey’s review of Spiritual Revolution.

I just finished the biography of Ravi Zacharias, Walking from East to West. It is the wonderful story of the brilliant apologist who came from the streets of Delhi and an attempted suicide to speaking at the United Nations, teaching at Oxford, and debating on behalf of the Christian faith at the most prestigious universities of the world.

   

I highly recommend the story of this modern-day apostle Paul on Mars Hill.

I’m reading  Jonathan Aitken’s  biography of John Newton, the ex-slave ship captain, friend of Wilberforce and composer of Amazing Grace. It is a wonderful story, and a well-written book. I recommend it.

Enjoy this video from the movie Amazing Grace and Chris Tomlin’s beautiful and haunting version of the great hymn,   

I first heard about the book at Catalyst Conference in Atlanta last month.

A study was commissioned by Barna’s Research team and published in a book titled UnChristian by Steve Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons. The book reveals some of the latest research on how people view the Church and the people in it.

The conclusion – Christianity has an image problem.

James Emery White writes

Many of those outside of the Christian faith think Christians no longer represent what Jesus had in mind – that Christianity in our society is not what it was meant to be. We’re seen as hyper-political, out of touch, pushy in our beliefs, and arrogant. And the biggest perceptions of all are that we are homophobic, hypocritical, and judgmental.

Simply put, in the minds of many, modern-day Christianity no longer seems Christian.

And much of that image has been earned. We’ve acted in ways, talked in ways, lived in ways, that have stolen from God’s reputation.

Here’s the heart of the matter: among young American “outsiders” (the author’s preferred term for those others might refer to as seekers, non-Christians, or the lost), the following words or phrases were offered as possible descriptors of Christianity, and the number who affirmed their accuracy:

*anti-homosexual (91%)

*judgmental (87%)

*hypocritical (85%)

*old-fashioned (78%)

*too involved in politics (75%)

*out of touch with reality (72%)

*insensitive to others (70%)

*boring (68%)

*not accepting of other faiths (64%)

*confusing (61%)

Fifteen years ago I commissioned a similar study that went to those who were unchurched and asked them a simple question: How did the church and those inside it lose you? I first published the research, done in coordination with the Barna Research Group (which also conducted the research for UnChristian) in my book Rethinking the Church. Comparing the two studies is interesting.

In 1992, the unchurched gave the following reasons for abandoning the church:

*There is no value in attending (74%).

*Churches have too many problems (61%).

*I do not have the time (48%).

*I am simply not interested (42%).

*Churches ask for money too frequently (40%).

*Church services are usually boring (36%).

*Christian churches hold no relevance for the way I live (34%).

*I do not believe in God, or I am unsure that God exists (12%).

Such findings pointed to a culture that was saying, “God, yes; Church, no.”

Now, research shows the deepening crisis, for it points to a culture that says “Christ, perhaps; Christianity and Christians, no.” Whereas before we were losing them institutionally, but not necessarily personally, we are now losing them personally. They look at our lives and see little that is attractive – and even they know that this means they are seeing little of Christ.

So what is the answer? Allow outsiders to determine the agenda and message of the church? We do not have that option, if we are to be Christ-followers.

White writes…

As with any crisis, we must not lament the problem, but address it.

First, get the book, read the results, and immerse yourself in its implications and dynamics. It is already causing quite a stir in the secular media – it needs to cause a stir among Christians.

Second, Christ-followers must renew themselves as to what it means to truly follow Christ. The “outsiders” are right – it isn’t Christian to be a hate-monger, or to be judgmental, or hypocritical. Many of us have drifted from the faith, and we need to repent. As the final chapter in the book dictates, we must move from “unchristian” to “Christian.”

Third, we must speak openly about such matters.

The book might be overwhelming, the findings discouraging, but we must take heart. “As C.S. Lewis believed, imagination precedes fact,” Lyons concludes in the final section of the book. “Let’s imagine together what could happen and then commit to being the change we want to create.”

I’m a bibliophile: I love books. New and old. Especially books by dead guys.

C. S. Lewis helped me a great deal when he wrote…

Naturally, since I myself am a writer, I do not wish the ordinary reader to read no modern books. But if he must read only the new or only the old, I would advise him to read the old…. A new book is still on its trial… It has to be tested against the great body of Christian thought down the ages, and all its hidden implications have to be brought to light.

There are so many places to find good books – at a discount. Lately, I’ve been using the online bookstore at Westminster Seminary. They usually can beat Amazon, and they are both fast and reliable. I recommend them.

One of the best-kept and should-be-known facts of history is the faith and life and perseverance of the Waldenses.

I first came across the Waldenses in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, and J. M. Carroll’s Trail of Blood. These mountain people, living on the border of France and Italy, were Reformation Christians, committed to Biblical thinking and living. Their faith came at a high price: persecution for four centuries (14th-17th). The massacre of the Rora Valley at the hands of the Inquisition may be the most vicious of the persecutions.

Author James Byron Huggins has resurrected the story of the Waldenses and Rora from the dusty records of history. I found it fascinating and well-written historical fiction. It is also a great study of leadership. Huggins shows what one person can do against seemingly insurmountable odds, motivated and sustained by the courage of convictions.

Newt Gingrich (yes, that Newt Gingrich) read the book and wrote…

This is a work of stunning brilliance…. Huggins takes the few known facts about the battle between the Waldenses’ and the Inquisition’s determination to exterminate them and turns those facts into a novel of remarkable wisdom and insight.

The Waldenses were Protestants marked for extermination by the Inquisition in 1655. Those Waldenses, unlucky enough to be living in relatively accessible country were massacred (about 6,000). The last refuge was a mountain valley of enormous difficulty to attack with only three easily defended points of access. About 150 men fought off 26,000 for weeks and cost the Piedmont Army about 12,000 casualties before being overrun. Even when their valley was overrun the remaining men hid in the caves of the mountains and continued the war.

The extraordinary military leader of this campaign was a mountain man named Joshua Gianavel. His wife and three daughters were burned at the stake when he refused to surrender (he and they would have been killed anyway if he had surrendered) and when he crossed the Alps to take his young son (the only surviving member of his family) to Geneva for safekeeping another 300 men volunteered to fight at his side. Ultimately they defeated the Piedmont Army in a campaign of extraordinary brilliance.

Huggins captures the essence of leadership. In such a situation a man makes a decision by what he has brought to the battle, by what he decided within himself long before the first blow was thrown. Men do not become heroes in a war; they are heroes before a war. War is only the place where their heroism is easily seen.” If you would care to understand how history can be made by stubborn idealism reinforced by courage and applied intelligence this is a book you must read.

Someone asked me for a list of my favorite books, or the books that have most influenced my thinking. I’ll begin with my top 12 biographies. Those these are numbered, the list is in no particular order.

1. To the Golden Shore, by Courtney Anderson (the life of Adoniram Judson, the first American missionary – in Burma. One of the most inspiring characters in all history)

2. The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, by Edmund Morris (Pulitzer Prize winner, recommended to me by Dr. Al Weir of Christian Medican/Dental Fellowship. A wonderful book about a fascinating man)

3. A Prophet with Honor: The Billy Graham Story, by Walter Martin (authorized by Graham and very honest about his strengths and weaknesses)

4. Jonathan Edwards, by George Marsden (The life of the greatest thinker in American history – a pastor in colonial America who experienced a great awakening)

5. The Autobiography of Charles Spurgeon (2 volumes – Spurgeon’s story in his own words.)

6. David Martyn Lloyd-Jones, by Ian Murray (2 Volumes on the life of one of the greatest preachers of our time)

7. Kingfish, by Richard D. White, Jr. (the story of Huey P. Long, one of the most colorful and powerful politicans in American history)

8. Wilberforce, by John Pollock (a great model for Christian public servants) 

9. Enciende Una Luz, by Marcos Witt (the autobiography of one of the best-known  Christian singers in Latin America – now pastor of the hispanic congregation of Lakewood Church, in Houston)

10. The Flags of our Fathers, by James Bradley (not exactly a biography, but one of the greatest stories of courage I’ve ever read)

 11. A Severe Mercy, by Sheldon Vauauken (a writer influenced toward Christ by C.S. Lewis -the story of the love and loss of his wife)

 12. The Seven Story Mountain, by Thomas Merton (what led a confused young unbeliever to fall in love with Jesus and ultimately become a monk)

I’d love to hear from you – what are your top biographies?

Today, I had the opportunity to hear a fascinating interview with Carly Fiorina, the former president and CEO of Hewlett-Packard. From 1995-2005, she reinvented HP in order to compete in the rapidly-changing business landscape. Under her tenure at HP, revenues were doubled, costs were lowered, and HP became a world leader in innovation. Then, without warning, she was fired. The story is told in her book, Tough Choices.

Consider these quotes from the interview:

People are afraid to change, afraid to risk, afraid something will not work. A good leader gives a vision more compelling than their fears.

We have to create experiences with people in order to stretch them. Otherwise, people will simply practice the same skills they already have.

Leadership requires passion and dispassion. Passion is heart for the mission Dispassion allows us to be objective, to see people for what they are, and the situation for what it is. Passion can motivate – and blind.

Innovation means listening to people who think differently.

People are people, wherever you find them.

In many ways, she has boiled leadership down to three words: “character” and “tough choices.”

She also gave her read on the firing: it boiled down to a small group on the Board who wanted power and control (what a surprise!), and used back-room political tactics to get rid of her (again, what a surprise).

The interviewer, Bill Hybels, led the audience to pray for Ms. Fiorina, that her marriage would be blessed and she would have the discernment to know the next step in her leadership.

I plan to read the book.

After being urged by several friends to read Francis Collin’s bestseller, The Language of God, I finally gave in and ordered the book. I’m glad I did.

Collins is a physician, scientist, head of the Human Genome Project, a motorcycle rider (!), and a very engaging writer. He is remarkably candid about his former atheism and his subsequent conversion to theism – and then to personal faith in Christ – through reading C. S. Lewis. There seems to be no question of the authenticity of his faith in Christ. In addition, he seems to be a warm-hearted and caring individual – the kind you’ve love to have over for dinner.

He is also a convinced and confirmed Darwinian evolutionist. He argues as strongly for the truth of evolution (as revealed by science) as he does for the truth of faith (as revealed by the universal Moral Code in human beings).

As you might expect, his book is an attempt to build a bridge between people of science and people of faith. He seems to honestly understand and appreciate the sincere fears and misunderstandings on both sides.

As an evangelical pastor with an interest in science, I found his arguments for evolution to be interesting but not entirely convincing. Despite his sincere attempt to deal honestly with Intelligent Design and Creationism, I think he has set up a straw man. Are there really no credentialed biologists who believe in a literal Genesis 1-2? Does a belief in creation necesarily require a belief in a young earth or literal 168 hour week of creation? And is it accurate to state…

theistic evolution is the most scientifically consistent and spiritually satisfying of the alternatives. This position will not go out of style or be disproven by future scientific discoveries.

He sounds like the liberal theologians of the early 20th century who wrote of the “assured results of modern scholarship.” Many of those “assured results” are seen today to be either false or inadequate. Today’s science textbook will be rendered an antique by the findings of science tomorrow.

I really appreciate his call for a truce in the escalating war between science and spirit. He writes,

Science is not threatened by God; it is enhanced. God is most certainly not threatened by science; He made all things possible…. The God of the Bible is the God of the genome.

I also appreciate his insight that science can be form of worship. At one point, he notes that Copernicus found in the discovery that the earth revolves around the sun an opportunity to celebrate rather than diminish the grandeur of God. Copernicus wrote,

to know the mighty works of God; to comprehend His wisdom and majesty and power; to appreciate in degree, the wonderful working of His laws, surelly all must be a pleasing and acceptable mode of worship to the Most High, to whom ignorance cannot be more grateful than knowledge.

involvement in international missions efforts raises some nagging questions:

*What is the eternal condition of those who die without hearing of Jesus?

*How should Christ-followers relate to those of different faiths?

*Why are there so many different religions? Do they serve any purpose? Can truth be found in them?

*How can a Christ-follower explain the checkered history of Christianity to an adherent of another religion?

*Do short-term mission efforts actually do more harm or create more confusion that is necessary? (See the preceding blog)

A recent book seeks to answer the “why has God allowed different religions?” question. God’s Rivals, written by Gerald R. McDermott (publisher is IVP) gives insights from the Scriptures and the early church.

One of the subjects he explores is the “principalities and powers” statements of Paul. McDermott explains:

The book’s premise is that for many of the biblical authors, and especially for the early church theologians, the major world religions are not simply human constructs but real spiritual entities. They represent, at least in part, fallen supernatural powers that reflect both light and darkness. I go on to discuss the implications of these views for today’s Christians who struggle to know how to understand other religions.

He writes a summary of his conclusions:

The cosmos is full of intermediate powers that were created good by God, but which at some point turned against God and are now actively hostile. Yet their power was broken at the cross, and God is now using them, even as they fight ferociously against his kingdom to advance his own larger agenda. They will finally be defeated at the end of time.

McDermott concludes:

1. God has filled the universe with invisible beings. Sometimes they are called “gods” or “elementary principles” or “powers” or “holy ones” or “heavenly council.” They are real and have genuine power to affect what happens on earth. They are “intermediate” in that they exist between the Almighty and his human creatures.

2. These beings are both good and bad. Some has fallen – he does not delve into how or when or why. They are our foes. They conspire against God’s people and his kingdom. Paul sees these spiritual powers as responsible for killing Jesus (1 Cor. 2:6-8)

3. On the cross, Jesus achieved a cosmic victory. He is Christus Victor! The malevolent powers are defeated enemies, led in triumphal process as humiliated and broken enemies. Christ-followers are protected against the powers’ worst plans, which are to separate them from Christ. This is great news – Jesus can handle the demons that threaten and torture and enslave and kill.

4. We live in the “time between the times.” The powers are defeated but still fighting. They are at work among those who are disobedient (Eph. 2:2). An analogy helps: After the June 1944 invasion of Normandy, the Axis powers knew they were, for all practical purposes, defeated. The question was not “if” but “when” they would be forced to surrender. Knowing this, they continued to fight – for almost a year. More American and British soldiers died after D-Day than before. McDermott writes,

Although the cross defeated Satan and the powers, they have done more harm to more people in history since that time than before. But they were defeated nonetheless, and the final manifestation of that defeat will come one day in the future.

5. God is using the powers. This is the amazing thing – their opposition actually serves God’s ultimate purpose. I saw firsthand the spiritual hunger and heard the unanswered questions among Muslims after the Tsunami in Indonesia. Islam prepared some to seek the Truth. Legalistic religions (and which religion apart from Biblical Christianity is not legalistic?) act as God’s attorney, accusing people of their sins. God uses the tyranny of the law to prepare for grace. Take another example (first articulated by John Piper, I think). Did the havoc and violence of 9-11 cause millions of unhappy Hindus in India to consider embracing Christianity rather than Islam? What Satan means for evil, God means for good.

6. The powers do their dirty work now, but they will not be able to do it forever. When Jesus returns and present world comes to an end, judgment will come to all, including the powers. They will be condemned, put under the feet of Jesus, and thrown into hell.

Our new worship pastor, Dr. Gary Gray, asked me to read God’s Favorite House, by Tommy Tenney. While some of the exegesis is dubious, there is no question of Tenney’s heart for God and hunger to experience God’s presence and glory in worship.

He notes there were five occasions when the windows of heaven open:

1. Tithing –

“Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this,” says the LORD Almighty, “and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that you will not have room enough for it.” Mal. 3:10

2. Persecution –

But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. “Look,” he said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”

At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. Acts 7:55-58

3. Persistence –

Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened. Matt 7:7-8

So Ahab went off to eat and drink, but Elijah climbed to the top of Carmel, bent down to the ground and put his face between his knees.

“Go and look toward the sea,” he told his servant. And he went up and looked.

“There is nothing there,” he said.

Seven times Elijah said, “Go back.”

The seventh time the servant reported, “A cloud as small as a man’s hand is rising from the sea.”
So Elijah said, “Go and tell Ahab, ‘Hitch up your chariot and go down before the rain stops you.’ ”

Meanwhile, the sky grew black with clouds, the wind rose, a heavy rain came on and Ahab rode off to Jezreel. 1 Kings 18:42-45

4. Unity –

“Again, I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. 20For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them.” Matt 18:19-20

Husbands, in the same way be considerate as you live with your wives, and treat them with respect as the weaker partner and as heirs with you of the gracious gift of life, so that nothing will hinder your prayers. 1 Peter 3:7

5. Worship

“Lift up your heads, O you gates; be lifted up, you ancient doors, that the King of glory may come in.” Psalm 24:7

Tenney concludes:

“Like it or not, the only way we can begin to open the heavens over our churches and cities is to become giving, persistent and unified worshippers who aren’t afraid to sacrifice all of Christ.”

Does this not explain why so much of what passes for “church” and “worship” is devoid of the experienced presence of God?

That is what pollster George Barna calls the Virginia Tech massacre. He lists a number of facts about the effect if growing up in our culture.

  1. By the time an American child is 23 years old, as was the killer in Virginia, he will have seen more than 30,000 acts of violence on television, movies and video games.
  2. By the age of 23, the average American will have viewed 1000s of hours of pornographic images, which diminish the dignity and value of human life.
  3. After nearly a quarter century on earth, the typical American will have listened to 100s of hours of music that fosters anger, hatred, disrespect for authority, selfishness, and radical independence.
  4. The average adolescent spends more than 40 hours each week digesting media, and the typical teenager in America absorbs almost 60 hours of media content each week. For better or worse, the messages received from the media represent a series of unfiltered, unchaperoned worldview lessons.
  5. It appears that as many as 1 out of every 5 young people is or has been under the influence of mood-altering medications, some of whose long-term side effects are not fully understood by the medical community. Drugging children has become one of the ways in which we have coped with other issues.
  6. Stress levels have been steadily rising among young children over the past couple of decades. A variety of factors have contributed to such stress, including parental acrimony and divorce, household financial troubles, media-fed expectations regarding materialism, overscheduling of children, bullying, physical abuse within the home, and excessive peer pressure.
  7. One-third of the nation’s teenagers report having been in a physical fight at least once in the last year. Nearly one out of every five 9th through 12th grade students has carried a gun, knife or club in the past month.
  8. Education, both in the home and outside of it, provides diminishing emphasis upon the development of character, and increasing emphasis upon meeting academic performance standards, especially through standardized testing.
  9. Growing numbers of children seek to make their way through an increasingly complex life without the traditional safety net comprised of a loving and supportive family, a stable circle of supportive peers, teachers who know and help nurture the child, and a community of faith that assists in giving meaning to life and a sense of belonging.
  10. Most young people admit that they feel as if they do not receive sufficient attention from their parents; do not have enough good friends whom they can count on; are unsettled about their own future; have personal spiritual perspectives but not much of a sense of spiritual community; lack role models; and do not feel that they have intrinsic value.

More information and preview of a new book on parenting here