2018 Reading Plan

I’ve made the offer again to let others choose my reading list, and sadly I have not gotten nearly the response as I have in years past. I think getting so precise on my themes for the year affected that, and it’s certainly reasonable to think that the more narrow my focus the fewer people will have books that meet the criteria.

For this year I wanted to focus on books that are either about other religions or were published at least 100 years ago. The list is not that long because I’ve learned from past years that I never complete any list made in January because other books end up getting added for various reasons. My goal is to work on books from prior years as I have time in 2018.

Inspiration and Authority of the Bible by B.B. Warfield. The author lived at the turn of the last century and was a well known leader in the defense of the reliability of the Bible against critics of that era. Of course the critics never stopped so I’m interested to see how his setting is different than our age and how he handled those who denied the inspiration of the Scriptures.

Sharing Your Faith With a Hindu by Madasamy Thirumalai. This book was recommended by a friend so it made the list. By the title it’s clear that it will be a Christian take on Hinduism so there is always a risk that the presentation of what Hindus actually believe will be skewed, but I have a second, more neutral book on Hinduism on my list as well. 
Holiness by J.C. Ryle. This book was one of the top things I read in 2012 and it’s time I re-read it. Ryle was a faithful gospel advocate in the U.K. in the 19th century but his wisdom and insights are powerful today as well.

The History of Mr Polly – HG Wells. My friend Nick sent me a list of the Guardian newspaper’s best 100 books of all time which started a discussion of those we had and had not read. We’re going to read this together.

Holy War by John Bunyan. Bunyan’s famous work, Pilgrim’s Progress, also made the Guardian’s list. This book is lesser known but I have friends who contend it is actually better than Pilgrim’s Progress so I’ve added it to the list. Written in 1682, it is probably the oldest book on the list (if I don’t add On the Incarnation by Athanasius). I already own the Complete Works of John Bunyan, so I’ll try to read it in the original vernacular, but may need to switch to an updated version so I’m not bogged down.

Unveiling Islam: An Insider’s Look at Muslim Life and Beliefs by Ergun Mehmet Caner and Emir Fethi Caner. I got this book at a used book sale for 25 cents shortly after deciding to focus 2018 reading on non-Christian religions. When I got it I didn’t know anything about it, but it turns out some of my friends know the authors. Another book written from a Christian point of view so I’ll try to add something on Islam later in the year by a practicing Muslim, or maybe just read the Qur’an.

Hinduism, A Very Short Introduction by Kim Knott. I got this book at the same book sale. The #1 thing I liked about it was that it was also 25 cents. It’s only about 120 pages which means I’m likely to finish it. The author doesn’t seem to be a practicing Hindu, which would be better, but she is a credible academic and the work is published by Oxford University Press so I’m cautiously optimistic.

A New Buddhist Path by David Roy. I have to admit that I didn’t know there was an old Buddhist path, so reading about the new one could be over my head. Still, I’m hopeful there will be enough background in this larger than average book to keep my feet on solid ground and for 25 cents at the same book sale it seemed like a risk worth taking. (It gets fantastic Amazon reviews.)

The Souls of Black Folk by WEB DiBois. In a year where I didn’t get as many suggestions as usual, this book got two votes so it automatically makes the list. I’m guessing it’s not about white people, so that will keep my goal alive of reading things written by people who are not like me about people who are not like me.

The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. My favorite librarian recommended this so I’m sure it will be wonderful given the thousands of books she sees every week that she didn’t recommend.

 

 

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Purpose Driven Life Reviewed (final)

Well, it’s been a journey to get through this book and the additional time has given the more opportunities to reflect on it than had I just rushed through it. The book is very light reading and it would be easy to finish in under a week to a reader that is committed to finishing it. Rather than give a point by point review of everything I liked and didn’t like I thought I would group my comments.

Likes

  • As I said above, it is very easy reading. My friends who did not finish high school could probably read and understand everything in it.
  • Warren is trying to address a common problem of professing Christians living meaningless lives without any emphasis on eternity.
  • There are certain points that he makes in the book such as God’s claim on the life of a Christian or the idea that the Christian life is to be one dedicated to serving others that are totally biblical and in short supply in our consumer driven churches.
  • I appreciated his emphasis on churches being a group of people committed to one another and to Jesus. (“Attenders are spectators from the sidelines, members get involved in the ministry”, p 136)
  • He can be very effective in using analogies and illustrations to make his points for him (for example when explaining that growing in Christ is meant to be a lifelong pursuit rather than a lightning bolt moment he says “When God wants to make a mushroom, he does it overnight, but when he wants to make a giant oak, he takes a hundred years”, p 222)
  • Chapters 10 on the heart of worship and chapter 29 on service are perhaps the best chapters in the book.
  • I have to admit that upon reflection, some of what initially rubbed me the wrong way ended up being an issue of improper emphasis rather than outright error.

Dislikes

  • By far my #1 complaint about the book and the reason I could never recommend it is Warren’s willingness to twist the Scriptures to get verses to say things he wanted to be able to say. This is true in the majority of the verses he cites. He tries to explain his use of so many different versions by saying other versions make verses more clear, but in reality he often chooses translations that do not hold the original language’s meaning if they include a particular work he wants to use. So on page 141 when he chooses the GWT version to get the word “sympathetic” in English, he abandoned the truth that the word the GWT translates “sympathetic” every other version translates “compassionate.” The only reason he did that is he already talked about compassion and now he wanted to make the Bible say what he wanted it to say. (The Greek word is oiktirmos, and you can see this by simply looking up Col 3:12 on biblehub.com). He does the same thing over and over which sadly I find sinfully dishonest.
  • Beyond that, there are just too many places in the book where he introduces psychobabble where the Scriptures have a voice. Psychology has some uses and I wouldn’t ever throw it overboard completely, but when the Bible has a competing claim, the Bible must win. Warren doesn’t seem to believe that – he believes things like “the more you fight a feeling, the more it consumes and controls you. You strengthen it every time you think it.” This is nowhere in the Bible but I did see it on Oprah once. This is most evident in his series of chapters on SHAPE (Spiritual Gifts, Heart, Abilities, Personality, Experience). Over and over he introduces concepts about who we are as people that are formed more by Dr. Phil than the Apostle Paul. When he introduces concepts like our “emotional heartbeat” to tell us where we should be serving he completely removes the supernatural from the equation. He seems to believe that God has hardwired people a certain way from birth and this never changes. To the contrary, the Apostle Paul said that he BECAME all things to all men that he might win some (1 Cor 9:22). I get why this is a popular stance to an American church that cherishes comfort above all else, but it’s just nowhere in the Bible.
  • Those two reasons alone would be enough to sink this book but there are more reasons to dump it. Warren will occasionally introduce sin, but not God’s wrath. I don’t remember seeing the word “repent” anywhere, even though the Reformers thought it was critical to the purpose driven life (see esp. Luther’s 1st thesis). He prefers to talk about hurts, flaws, or mistakes. He writes about Christianity mostly in terms of the benefits it brings in the here and now rather than either the heavenly reward Paul and the author of Hebrews tout, or even as an escape from the wrath of God.

Overall, this book is much less bad than I thought it would be but it’s nowhere near good enough to recommend to anyone.

Purpose Driven Life Reviewed (2)

As I promised, I’m taking this review in sections as the author asked the reader to do. Granted my sections are bigger than his, but I trust I’m honoring the spirit of what he intended.

I’ve just finished day 20 of 40 and my giant takeaway is that I don’t hate the book as much as I suspected I would. There are many things in the book that are helpful and if believers actually did them would transform their lives. For example, Warren spends day 13 talking about worship that pleases God. He goes out of his way to say that all of life is essentially worship, not just the music time during a weekly gathering on a Sunday morning. I am amazed how many people identify worship exclusively with music when that concept is nowhere in the Bible. The chapter includes some negatives like the paragraph on nine ways people draw near to God which is more Dr. Phil than Peter, Paul, or John, but for the most part Bible Warren gets this one right.

There are lots of things I think he misses like how the holiness of God ought to terrify us or the Kingship of God ought to make us willing subjects or the transcendence of God ought to amaze us. He does more or less treat people as consumers and Christianity as the product that offers the most fulfilling life with the best benefits. But there is a lot of good mixed with the bad – certainly a lot more than I expected to see.

And I think that has been par for the course for most of these 20 chapters. For every time he chooses to talk psychobabble, there is good biblical instruction. For each time he makes the Kingdom of God sound like a shopping mall, he calls professing believers to some kind of accurate biblical commitment. For every time he abuses the Scripture with tortured interpretations or swaps out a Bible translation until he finds an English word he prefers, there is a time when he simply presents a passage in the proper context and calls the reader to respond.

Halfway through, this is still not a book I would recommend to anyone. The people I hang around are not likely to read more than a handful of books this year and there is just too much mixed content in here to have it push a good book off the list I would recommend for a light reader. But I am glad to have picked it up and had some preconceived notions of Warren get dispelled in the process.

Purpose Driven Life Reviewed (1)

Since the author (Rick Warren) asks the reader to take his book one chapter per day for 40 days, I felt like the least I could do is consider it and write about it in chunks. I certainly won’t be spending 40 days seriously contemplating it, but breaking my impressions into several posts seems to at least honor the point he’s wanting his readers to get.

I thought I would hate the book. Rick Warren is a generally loose theologian with a murky gospel who excuses a lot of things the Bible calls “sin” under the umbrella of pop psychology. I’m sure he’s a nice man but he’s not  a good pastor in the biblical sense of the word. Yet my impression so far is a little different than I expected it to be.

I hate the book more than I thought I would not because he is so far off, but because at several times he gets the reader so close and then dumps the truth down the toilet. For example in chapter three he lists all kinds of things which are not God that can control people. He is totally right about them. The problem is he talks about them more like Dr. Phil than the Apostle Paul. He calls them “driving forces” but the Bible defines them as idolatry. They are not episodes of confusion but rebellion. Then he lists his “solution” to be considering the benefits of a purpose driven life rather than repenting from a self-centered life.

Chapter 7 is the epitome of this. The chapter starts so well. Warren correctly explains the glory of God and what it means in practical terms. He outlines five ways Christians should be living for the glory of God responsibly. Then, just as I’m about to commend him, he tells people who aren’t sure if they’re living for God to just “believe and receive,” no strings attached. There is a sense in which salvation is offered as the free gift of God which nobody could ever earn, but it absolutely 100% of the time requires repentance and Warren does not use that word once. He gives the reader the impression that if they just trust Jesus, God will forgive whatever hangups and screw ups they’ve done without any commitment to turning away from them. Maybe that will come later, but the fact that he’s not explained the basics of the gospel yet seven days into calling people to live a purpose driven life is preposterous in my view.

Throughout the first seven chapters he abuses the Bible quite freely. My assumption is that anyone who uses 18 different Bible translations is doing it because he or she wants to twist the Scriptures to include only what they want to include. Warren does exactly that. What’s worse is he frequently claims passages mean something that they don’t (such as 1 John 4:18 should comfort someone who chooses to fear earthly circumstances rather than the fear of eternal judgment which it is actually referencing). He’ll also leave off parts of a verse like he does in Ch. 7 with John 3:36 when he wants to promise a carefree life in Christ but intentionally omits the 2nd half of the verse that says Jesus demands obedience from those He saves.

Part of his carelessness also shows up in the quotes or analogies he uses. Of note, he quotes George Bernard Shaw, an atheist who hated all types of organized religion, to make the point that being made in God’s image means to seek purpose. The purpose Shaw is claiming is antithetical to any purpose an image bearer of God should manifest.

There is a reason the book has sold so well. It is a call to get the contentment of a life purpose without any kind of actual commitment or cost whatsoever. That is the spirit of this age. Perhaps this will come later in the book for for now I find it seriously lacking. At least I give him credit for finding the sweet spot of what passes for Christianity in the west and writing a book that audience would read.

 

Replant: How a Dying Church Can Grow Again Reviewed

This is a book I hoped to like a lot. I am working through the North American Mission Board’s process to be a replanting pastor and the topic is very interesting to me. I didn’t love it for reasons I’ll explain.

That being said, it is an easy read and I’m glad Mark DeVine and Darrin Patrick wrote it. The book chronicles one church (First Calvary Baptist Church in Kansas City) and its journey through a growing awareness of its status as a dying church, the political infighting of a few influential people who were happy to see the church die provided they remained in charge, and the path the church took (led by Mark) to deal with the problem. Mark and Darrin are both very conversational and they did the reader a favor by simply telling their story. At various places in the book they clarified that they were not trying to write a manual on replanting but just telling the story of one situation.

For what it’s worth, they accomplished what they set out to do. It just wasn’t that ambitious of a goal. The book has very little for anyone to learn other than a fact pattern that went basically unchallenged or even contemplated. The story is presented as though the steps taken were the only possible steps that could be taken and perhaps it’s true. The problem is that they never built (in my opinion) any kind of a basis that argued for why selling out this autonomous church and giving everything to The Journey was the best course of action. It’s not even clear how much other replanting/revitalizing options were considered or what the barriers in Mark’s mind were to their implementation. Pulling back the curtain on this could have been something very valuable to readers drawn to this kind of book but it is noticeably absent.

I have to say that while I sympathized somewhat with Mark as he tells the story with himself being the main character and protagonist, it was hard for me to like him as a character. By his own admission, he got most excited not at the idea of helping these believers find an electrifying identity in Christ, but rather by the prospect of ending their church as they knew it and handing it off to someone who would do more with it than they could (in his opinion). Even his comment about his family being absent from the church created less sympathy for him and more suspicion over how differently he would be processing things had his loved ones been directly affected by his decisions. I am confident my decision making is improved by my wife’s active involvement in it and I didn’t pick up any introspection by Mark as he discussed trying to figure out his next steps absent his wife other than to say that if the church folded or the new owners fired him he’d lose 1/3 of his income and his family would be impacted. To me, he came across much more as a consultant than a pastor and while I’m sure that was not the case in reality it is the way the book reads.

I gave it three stars because I have to admit that once I realized it was not a serious book I started skimming some parts and may have missed something that would counter the things I found lacking. Otherwise I would have given it two stars.

There are so many better books out there on the topic that offer more wisdom, more practical help, a better understanding of the supernatural battle that is replanting, more compassion for the senior saints that tend to be in these churches, etc. The best one I’ve read so far is Mark Clifton’s book Reclaiming Glory but even Darrin’s book Church Planter would equip most people far better to attack this kind of situation than this one did.

Dairy Queen Days Reviewed

There’s no shame in writing a fiction book that is not David Copperfield or Count of Monte Cristo or another top flight fiction book. I don’t read a lot of fiction so as I write this review I’m trying to be fair and not expect everything to be a masterpiece.

Still, this was not a good book. It took me 276 pages to finally care about the characters and where the story was going. Given it took me 200 pages to get to the same point with Count of Monte Cristo that may not seem too bad. The big difference is that Count had 850 pages and this book has 283.

When I say it is not a good book, I do not mean to say there were no parts of the book I found interesting or compelling. In fact, one of the tragedies is that the more interesting characters were basically ignored. I think the protagonist in the story is supposed to be a sympathetic character, but mostly he seemed to me like a whiny teenager that was not going to be happy until he got to live the life he wanted. Even after the major trajectory change in the closing pages of the book, he runs away from a time when someone with an ounce of character would have stood firm. This is all the more pathetic to me because throughout the book, the author has been trying to show that he was the one person in his family that was sensible, sane, and resolute.

The book got on my reading list because I wanted to have something there that depicted my region of the country. Did it do that successfully? Probably it did. Basically every main character adhered to a form of religion but denied its power. Their faith was a showpiece, not a living and active reality in their lives. The protagonist’s father, a Methodist preacher, loved cliches and clever sayings more than the Bible. People showed up to church to get a show rather than be changed into the image of Jesus. There’s a line in the early pages of the book that captures that sense well: “An old piece of Bear Bryant wisdom. Joe Pike was fill of Bear Bryant wisdom. It had the ring of Scripture to it.”

So that was one of the disappointing things to me about the book. Yes, the Bible Belt is filled with people for whom Christianity is nothing more than a social construct, but it isn’t exclusively those people. There are lots of real, committed Christians in the Bible Belt. None of them made it into this book. The point of including a book with a regional focus is to experience your actual area through the lens of another person, not a caricature of your area. This book (written by an Alabama alum) presented small town Georgia as a series of fake people pursuing phone dreams carried along by sentimentality and regret. That’s just not reality.

Plus, it has a really dumb ending that makes no sense whatsoever.

Picking Cotton Reviewed

Picking Cotton is an interesting book because it brings together the stories of two people who on all basic levels should have nothing to do with one another. Jennifer Thompson was a college student raped in her home by a stranger, and Ronald Cotton was the man she falsely identified as her attacker. Cotton ended up wrongfully convicted and served nearly 11 years in prison.

As a book there really isn’t anything to complain about. It’s well written. The story is compelling. The characters are believable. For a true story they do a good job expressing their weaknesses as well as their strengths. Ronald is especially interesting to me because of the hope he finds in some incredibly flawed people like the father that never really supported him as a child. It’s generally written in the first person she said/he said format which works for what it is.

One thing I appreciated about the book is how closely it linked the root cause of Ronald’s false conviction to the overarching story. Ronald was the victim of mistaken identity due to what were common but still unhelpful law enforcement and prosecutorial practices. I don’t believe anyone said the reason he was wrongfully convicted was his race, which was refreshing. If we don’t look at the actual root causes we will never remedy these injustices, and I think this book helped in that regard. (about 75% of people freed by DNA evidence after wrong convictions were put in jail simply by eyewitness accounts.)

There is a lot of talk in the book about things like forgiveness, mercy, grace, God’s plan for us, etc. but they are generally not in line with the biblical definitions of those words. They are self serving usages about inner healing or leaving the past behind. Of course there is some value to that, but there is far more value to understanding and applying these terms biblically.

There are side characters such as Ronald’s legal team that I would have liked to learn more about. What motivates people to give up their time and energy to right these wrongs? I realize that one book cannot cover every angle of a story but this is something I think would have rounded out the book. It was also a bit long for me – at roughly 300 pages it seemed about 50-75 pages too long. In today’s day, I feel like a book should do more than what could be done in a 15 minute segment on an evening news talk show. Frankly, I don’t think this book did that to much of a meaningful degree. (The story is compelling but the 15 minute version can be found here.)