You Are What You Love Reviewed

At this point I have to admit something to the people who read this blog something you already know, namely that I’ve been terrible at keeping up with the blog. The good news is that I’ve been slightly less terrible at keeping up with my reading list and I will try to get around to publishing more reviews of my books in the next couple of weeks assuming that my paying job and my church responsibilities don’t keep me away

I mentioned in my reading list that today’s book “You Are What You Love” was on many book of the year lists from people I greatly respect. I wanted to like this book simply based on the fact that the title sounds like something I would say both figuratively and literally (we’ll get to that). Ultimately, I think the book did have some very strong point but I did not like it, had to work like crazy to get through it, and I don’t think it benefitted me or would benefit most anyone in my little mission field much. Even so, I’ll start with the positives

I think the author and I would get along well and see eye to eye on many things, even things he covers in the book. He rightly and forcefully makes the case early and often that the Christian life is a life of “knowing” in a relational sense and not “knowing” in an academic sense. I think the one sentence that basically summarizes the whole book is found on page 127, “You might have bible verses on the wall in every room in your house and yet the unspoken rituals reinforce self-centeredness rather than sacrifice.” Indeed, this idea that how we actually live our lives reveals what we truly love most is part of his core message and a core message of the Bible. Why did Israel turn from God to idols? Ultimately it was because they wanted to. Maybe they thought God was unreliable, or the idols promised something better, or they didn’t want to wait for God. The bottom line was in the moment of that hope transfer from the one true God to an idol they wanted what they believed the idol promised more than what they believed God promised

So he goes on to point out all the ways God asks people to examine their desires and how the life of desire is more central to the souls of people made in God’s image than the life of knowledge acquisition. He blows up the idea you see in many conservative Christian circles “You grow by what you know” and he points out this means that the life spent following Jesus is “more about hungering and thirsting than of knowing and believing,” and I think that’s more or less right. He shows very well how that philosophy would play out in practical ways in churches and homes and youth groups. That emphasis and those specific applications can be appreciated by almost anyone who wants to transform life. It is in the unconscious “default setting” of our hearts that ultimately makes most of the choices in life, and thus we need to make conditioning that setting (which he calls telos) a major priority in becoming more like Jesus. These points are very strong in my view.

So why not a positive review and recommendation? I’ll list several reasons:

  • It’s important to remember that for books related to ministry in the church, I’m reading them in a totally different context than I did a few years ago. I am serving poor, minority, mostly under-educated people here. Not a single one of them could have gotten 10 pages into this book. It was written by a philosophy professor and it shows. If you’re a middle class, white, college educated, philosophy lover that serves people like yourself, than you’ll like this book way more than I did. It’s not just the concepts that are hard to tackle, there are far too many complicated words for no apparent reason which makes it difficult to read. Take “telos”. Why not just say “default setting” or the word the Bible uses, “heart.” Any term you pick is going to take some explanation, but it would have been nice to read this book without a dictionary. I could have used the word “pattern” instead of liturgy. There are at least a dozen more. The book is just not that accessible.
  • I am also underwhelmed at how far he takes this idea of “liturgy.” At one point I asked in my notes why he keeps doing this and then it finally occurred to me that it’s the whole point of his book. He believes that church liturgies – the doing the same things over and over routine seen in some church traditions – are somehow more of an interaction between God and people even though it’s really just the people doing the same things over and over. He equates these church traditions that stand out in our culture as somehow automatic evidence of transcendence. I think he goes way too far with this in a way a Baptist with the same core convictions would not go simply because of a different experience in Sunday gatherings. He is imposing his form of church on his notion of spiritual formation (although he argues he is not doing that).
  • Related to this, I am not comfortable with the way he praises liturgical forms of so called “Christian” traditions that do not hold to the core teachings of the faith such as Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodox. I’m not trying to start a fight, I’m only saying those groups do not believe the same things about how to become a Christian, how to grow as a Christian, or how Christian identity is expressed in a local church. It is mind boggling to me that he would promote them as examples.
  • Since he sees liturgies as transformational, he then takes the massive leap that if we just start doing a different liturgy we will become changed people. I just don’t think the Bible says that. I think, contrary to his earlier quote which I mostly like, discipleship is primarily about believing. It is about choosing to believe the truth or believe a lie. I would totally agree with Dr. Smith that the truths you believe show up in your practical life patterns, but I don’t believe that changing patterns changes hearts. A man who hates his wife and kids and believes they are the reason for everything bad in his life will avoid them. Having a family dinner every night is not going to change anything but that man’s schedule. Might God use something in that commitment to change the man’s heart? Only if he is operating from faith (what he believes) when he makes the change. That is what the bible says and what it means to walk by faith and not by sight.
  • And so my #1 concern with the book is what I see as an over emphasis on what amounts to religious externalism. The author wants us to believe that “rehabituation” is the key to a transformed life. If only people did different things, then their hearts would change. If only they were more committed to “transcendent” ceremonies and liturgies and traditional worship contexts then they’d really look like Jesus. The problem is that idea perfectly describes the Pharisees who Jesus condemned by saying “These people honor me with their lips but their hearts are far from me.” All of their liturgy didn’t make them follow Jesus. The Bible just doesn’t seem to indicate that people change like that.
  • Even at just under 200 pages the book seemed long to me. I cover half of his concept in a sentence I say all the time to my church family and those who come to counseling: 100% of the people, 100% of the time, chase what they love most. I bet if he worked with Mez McConnell or someone else focused on less highly educated disciples he could get the book down to 120 pages and make it far more accessible at the same time.

 

Prepared for a Purpose Reviewed

I came across this book at a local discount store and thought it would be a good addition to my 2017 reading list. It met several criteria from a list I was using to push me toward a more diverse set of authors: female author, minority author, memoir style. The author had the commendation of sources as broad as President Obama and Fox News. Plus, this was a crisis event that happened in my own metro area so it seemed something I might benefit from socially and professionally (my career is in crisis management).

I think I would enjoy the author’s company quite a lot. It’s clear from the book we share many values, but her background is so different than mine I think she would stretch the way I applied those common values. In doing some homework on her story, her daughter Lavita has had some noteworthy successes which is also a great testimony to the author (couldn’t learn much about her son). The details of her story of how she reacted  when she was the primary point of contact a gunman showed up at her school would be riveting. She as a resilient faith in Jesus that would be an encouragement to any Christian.

But this is a book review, so my job is to evaluate how good of a book this is. I think it’s middle of the road at best for a few reasons.

The author uses a somewhat common technique of bouncing from her life story to the crisis event. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. Most of the times when she would flashback to her life story I found it interesting but totally unrelated to the crisis event. Since the title of the book is “Prepared for a Purpose” I was really expecting the connections to be frequent and obvious but in my opinion they were not. It was not until page 140 (of 219) when she talked about a time when she felt like things were so bad she wanted to die that I caught any connection between the two events whatsoever.

The other thing I think really distracted me about the book is how far out of her way the author went to try to make her boyfriend/husband seem like less of a jerk. I’m guessing we only got a fraction of the whole story in this book and it’s still enough to know I would have not liked this guy very much. I saw a Ted Talk type video with the author’s daughter and she described her dad as a notorious drug dealer. I was not surprised in the slightest. It’s pretty clear to me that while it was perhaps part of her preparation for this event, the actual substance of that relationship was pretty one sided. As a church leader, I was disappointed how much her church failed to protect her from him and had to wonder how much of that was because the church leader and her husband were related. Maybe there is more to the story that would change my opinion.

One struggle for me as I read a memoir written by a professing Christian is to take off my theological filter and just appreciate the book for what it is. That was true in this case. I’m not sure how much actual doctrine the author and I would agree on and I found myself frequently having to take a step back from my doctrinal filter. The wonderful thing for me is when I did that you got to see a lot of the author’s hopes, dreams and pursuits. I was forced to ask myself hard questions like “Since she seems like a smart and capable lady, why would she stick around with this loser?” She is pretty transparent in her life story so it’s not hard to piece together some of the forces that drove her decision making. In our ministry context we meet ladies who make the same decisions all the time and I am grateful for the reminder through this book that things that are obvious to me simply aren’t so obvious to others. Perhaps these ladies are more justified in their conclusion than I would initially think, or at least more worthy of compassion.

Overall, I think that is the best part of the book – getting the chance to see behind the curtain of Antoinette’s life. If she had never been the calming influence that may have saved dozens of lives in August 2013, that would still be a story worth knowing.

Code Name Verity Reviewed

It’s the worst time of the year. The time when I have to review a fiction book. I don’t even know how to review a fiction book. I read the Code Name Verity at the request of my daughter who says it is her favorite all time book.As I write this, I am even tempted to keep this introductory paragraph so long that I never have to write the actual review. I wonder whether that will work. I doubt too many people will find it compelling. I am running out of things to say. I give up.

I thought it was a good book. I don’t think I”d re-read it as my daughter has, but it was well written and the story line was pretty interesting. The setting is the end of WW2 and you don’t get too far into the book before you appreciate the amount of research the author did about the various aspects of history, culture, and war fighting of the time. I’m always heartened to learn non-fiction while reading fiction. In a wonderful twist, something I learned in the book showed up in an episode of Foyle’s War I watched the next day which had the effect of increasing my opinion of the book.

In terms of style and flow, the author takes an interesting approach by organizing the book into journals written by the two main characters. It’s a clever way to write – having your characters do the writing for you, and I imagine it’s harder to do this than it is to just sit down and write the book like I’m writing this review. Despite the format, the book is still filled with the kind of surprises you would expect to see in a thriller style book and there are plenty of plot lines you don’t actually grasp until the end of the book.

Even though the bulk of the content in the book is about two people’s involvement in the Allied war effort, the book is really about a friendship between Julie and Maddie. Their love for each other transcends their significant differences and I suppose that in and of itself is a heartwarming aspect of the book that would improve our world if modern readers would just believe it.

Since I have made it clear that I have no idea how to review a fiction book, I admit I cheated a little and read the NY Times review of the book. They admitted that saying anything about the plot could ruin the book for the reader. This is something my daughter understood well as she told told me nothing about the book when at the same time enthusiastically explaining why I should read it. The good news for me is that I now have an out to say much more about it. Wonderful how it works out that way.

I would recommend the book for anyone who enjoys spy fiction, especially of the WW2 period. It’s a “girl power” book without being one of those “shove it down your throat” girl power books bathed in pretension that are well hated and ignored by the very people who probably ought to read a few more girl power books.

Outlive Your Life – Max Lucado

I have been delaying this review longer than I should because in all candor I did not want to write it. The book was disappointing in so many ways and while it was not totally without merit, I can think of a dozen or more books that would accomplish the goal of this one better, with more insight, and at a higher level of truth content.

I will say that Lucado has a very easy to read writing style. I added this book to my list in 2016 because I wanted to see what made his work so popular in Christian circles. Undoubtedly, his writing style is one reason. I also have to commend a clever use of word pictures and illustrations to get his point across. The book has more horse sense (“If we wait until everything is perfect, we’ll never issue and invitation.”) than it does actual biblical admonitions.

That’s pretty much all I can say that is positive. Perhaps the worst thing I can say, and I don’t mean it in any way other than a comparison of the books I reviewed this year, is that it reminded me a lot of  Joel Osteen. Of course the book is not as theologically bankrupt as Osteen’s was, but it is very similar in the way it relied on illustrations and stories to make points that may or may not be in the Bible. It seemed like Lucado’s chief goal was readability rather than fidelity to the truth. On one hand, readability is really important when communicating truth because if people put the book down after 10 pages the truth never gets out. On the other hand, if the way you keep people reading is by being clever, they’re never going to see Jesus.

One of the most troubling aspects of the book is the way Lucado just starts making stuff up about Bible stories without ever differentiating what is his imagination and what is in the actual text. He makes up facts that potentially change the meaning of the Scripture about Annas, Peter, Philip, Ananias/Sapphria, and others. It’s actually scary to think he’s so comfortable representing his musings about what happened as authoritative. I’m not saying we should never use our imagination – we’ve dedicated our Friday evening evangelistic study to that very thing – but we’re just so much more careful about stating what is God’s Word and what is us filling in the blanks.

Another disappointment from the book was how many different translations Lucado used throughout (eight in total). It seemed like he already knew what he wanted to say and just went looking for verses to back it up in whatever version made that easiest for him. Certainly sometimes there are nuances that our preferred version do not catch well, but it just strikes me as more honest to say that outright and take a sentence or two to explain it. Bouncing around between versions is at least lazy and potentially intellectually dishonest.

The book was not without any merit. The chapter on hospitality was pretty good. Some of the stories were helpful to illustrate rather than usurp a biblical point. In the end I simply cannot recommend it. If you are interested in a book that will help you think about what it would look like to invest your life in such a way that your impact lives on after you I would recommend John Piper’s Don’t Waste Your Life (free PDF available), Tim Keller’s Every Good Endeavor, or Dave Harvey’s Rescuing Ambition. Another idea would be to read a biography of someone who left a legacy after he or she died such as John Newton: From Disgrace to Amazing Grace by Jonathan Aitken or Fox’s Book of Martyrs by John Foxe.

Gaining by Losing by J.D. Greear reviewed

I mentioned at the beginning of the year that this book made my 2016 list because I knew I would disagree with the author on all sorts of issues around body life in a church but admired what I saw as a commitment toward church planting. The book confirmed both of those notions.

I think the book’s basic strength is that it’s written by someone who believes enormous churches where you cannot possibly know the people around you are a good thing. That’s because those churches, if they saw the issue of sending properly, have the most immediate opportunity to impact the landscape of Christianity in America. In one chapter, Greear explains that it’s wonderful to both be attractional (meaning to try to draw people into church gatherings for evangelism) and missional (meaning we need to go to non-Christians and proclaim the gospel to them in ways that are adapted to their language, background, and culture. The way he explains it is useful and a helpful bridge to people who still think inviting people to church is an effective evangelistic technique (which it almost never is now and will be even less so in the future).

One of the first things that hits you in the book is J.D.’s humility in admitting that he did not start off with the mentality and philosophy of ministry he promotes in the book. In several places in the book he comes back to where he had to make substantial course corrections and repent of sinful or bad motivations in order to get to where they are now.

His overarching point, made on page 19 and then throughout the book, is that since the God of the Bible is a sending, or missionary God, His followers should be as committed to it as He is. That has to include more than just writing a check to someone living 3000 miles away, it has to be a lifestyle. He effectively draws the comparison of the church as an aircraft carrier that equips the war planes then sends them out for battle as opposed to a cruise liner built for the comfort of its passengers or a battleship that does it’s fighting in limited amounts of big bangs (p 27-29). The idea culminates a few chapters later when he writes:

When the church begins to operate with the assumption that everyone is called, our approach to mobilization will shift dramatically. We won’t limit our mission engagement to a bulletin board in the lobby with images of people serving in New Guinea that church members should pray for, as important as that is. We will see every  member of our church as a potential missionary to be equipped and mobilized. Our goal is not to send some, or even our best, but to send all into the mission – to our city, across the country, or to the other side of the world.

Even though he is a “big church” guy whose Facebook page looks like a rock concert, in the book he does warn big churches trying to be attractional that many times they can “substitute the gathering power of entertainment for the transforming power of the cross.” It’s a helpful warning to those trying to walk the line J.D. is walking and while I bet he and I would see the line at very different places, I’m glad to see that someone who claims to pastor 6,000 people believes there is a line at all.

The chapter on racial reconciliation was useful mostly because it didn’t just repeat the same drivel that is spouted from many church leaders today. He actually talked a little about what it would take for the church to truly be reconciled across racial lines. I think he overplayed the hand that God expects us to primarily reach unbelievers who are a lot like us, but overall it was well done. One quote in particular was worth sharing.

“Multicultural engagement within your city, like international missions, is something that all believers are expected to participate in, but that God moves certain believers to pursue with focused intentionality. The apostle Paul was in that category. Some of us (under the leadership of the Spirit) need to make this cause our cause. After all, it makes no sense to send people 10,000 miles across the globe to reach people of other cultures when we won’t send people ten miles across our own city to reach people in different neighborhoods. Why would we cross the seas but not the tracks?” (p172)

The flow of the book seemed a little choppy to me, mostly because he “chapterized” the core principles that they emphasize at his church. I’m sure it fits their mostly white, suburban, middle class, enormous church but a lot of it didn’t really fit my world at all and a lot of his talking points wouldn’t make much sense to the mission field God has given us. That’s okay because we have our own core principles but in some ways it interfered with the value of the book for me. Still, as I reviewed my kindle version I noticed at least one highlight in each chapter although there seemed to me more highlighting early on.

By the end of the book I was convinced J.D. was someone who really loved Jesus and wanted to see the knowledge of His glory cover Raleigh Durham like the waters cover the sea. I was also convinced I wouldn’t last more than a month at his church. The book is a worthwhile read for anyone looking for examples of the kind of culture necessary to be a church that is really focused on the Great Commission. It’s a fairly easy read for a 250 page book and most readers could complete it without any problems.

Nothing Like It in the World: The Men Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad, 1863-1869

I really had no idea what to expect from this book. I’ve always appreciated the author, especially as it relates to Band of Brothers, but I’d never really thought about the first transcontinental railroad before. I got the book used at our local “friends of the library” book store and figured it would meet my goal for the year of reading a bunch of stuff I wouldn’t normally select.

I really enjoyed the book. Ambrose does a good job of making the arduous work of building a railroad at a mile per day or digging tunnels at a couple feet per day easy to read and even compelling. He does in this book what he does best, making the most of the biographical sketches of the key players while he records the history of building the railroad. The level of detail of these men was more than sufficient for me and I would say I feel like I know Durant (and wouldn’t trust him with my dog) and would like to shake the hand of General Dodge. Most of all, I have untold respect for a man I’d never heard of before, Theodore Judah, whose imagination, hard work, and relentless passion were the reasons this railroad got designed and built in the first place. After becoming enamored with him, I became quite upset to read that he died prior to seeing his vision fully realized.

I suppose one of the most thought provoking comments made in the book was near the end when Ambrose suggested that of all the generations who witnessed change, those alive during the 2nd half of the 19th century America probably experienced more personal change than anyone else in history. They got the railroad, the ability to move freely across great distances, the telegraph, electricity, the end of slavery, and much more. Yes, something like the internet was massively disruptive in everyone’s lives but he could be right that it was this time period that changed the most considering prior to these inventions people more or less communicated and did commerce in the same was as Alexander the Great.

I would certainly recommend it. I suppose the highest praise I can offer the book is that it made me, a non-reader, want to read more detail about certain elements he covered in the book such as the real truth on relations between settlers and Native Americans and the development of corporations.

No go for Joel

One of the things I wanted to do with this year’s reading plan is to read a lot of things I would not normally choose. These books span a wide range of topics and ranged from the excellent Smartest Kids in the World to the mind boggling Fear and Trembling and lots of good stuff in between.

I have been pretty critical of Joel Osteen for a long time based on what I have seen of him on TV and read in snippets. I also had the chance to meet dozens of people coming to hear him speak in Atlanta which you can read about here. I became convicted that if I was to be fair, I should actually read something he wrote from start to finish to give him a chance to dispel my concerns. I picked up a used copy of Become a Better You for that purpose. The book is nearly 400 pages long and provided Osteen a solid opportunity to put forth his view of God, man and the world.

I try to commend the commendable, so let me start by saying it’s easy to see why so many people like Joel Osteen. Not only does he reek “positivity”, he has great stories to back up his points. Whether it’s talking about how ancient warfare including plugging up an enemy city’s water supply as a bridge to talk about shutting down pathways God chooses to bless us or telling a story of a real person living out what he teaches with good results, this is compelling. He has an excellent manner of drawing people into the content he wants to pass on to them and I wish I was better at that.

The other thing that may not be commendable but explains a lot of his popularity is that while in the whole, he seems to be a false teacher (which I’ll detail in a minute), he is so close to the truth in many places. He tells people to run from temptation, that life starts in our hearts, to let God be their vindicator rather than hold a grudge, not worship the approval of others, to defeat bad habits by replacing them with good ones, and many more ideas that are basically biblical. It should not surprise us that God’s truth, delivered incrementally, would actually be compelling to many people.

The problem is that he uses these points to teach a message that is not in the Bible. He wants people to run from temptation not because sin is an abomination to a holy God but because it will drag you down and prevent your happiness. He tells people to let God set the agenda for their life because God has a great destiny for them on earth. He encourages people to celebrate the victories of others because that way God will give them victories. He consistently, almost exclusively, treats God as some kind of captive to our happiness rather than what the Bible teaches which is God exists for His own happiness. In almost every case where Osteen started with something going in the right direction, he ended with a totally man-centered, Godless application. That isn’t to say he didn’t have some good horse sense in the same way that Dr. Phil does, I’m just saying that when he starts out saying something is Biblical virtually always ends it with false teaching. He misquotes the Bible and takes whole passages out of context to make the point he wants to make. Osteen would benefit from reading something simple like How to Read the Bible for all it’s Worth or Living by the Book.

He may have covered this in other books more but even in this one, you can see the basis for this false teaching. Osteen believes that the best possible thing that can happen for you is to be happy right now. I wonder how he would handle Jesus’ statement that people who are slandered, persecuted, or killed for their faith are blessed. Osteen completely misses the gospel and only once or twice in the entire book even mentions the word “sin” or applies the doctrine of sin in any way. As as result, he does not tell people to repent and turn to God by faith – he tells people to rub their genie lamp and get some stuff by faith. Just like the people I met years ago at Philips Arena, there is no chance anyone reading this book will get a picture of the God of the Bible because I don’t believe Joel Osteen knows the God of the Bible. Christians should absolutely cling to the promises of God by faith regardless of circumstances, but Osteen over and over tells his readers to cling to promises that God never made (abundance, long life, success, material prosperity, career advancement, good health, debt free living, great relationships, etc.).

And this leads to my final criticism, namely that there is nothing supernatural or eternal about what Osteen puts forward in this book. I may have missed something but it seemed that 100% of the blessing he believes God wants to give his readers are material things. Even when he gets close to the truth, where things fall apart is the expectation that everything in this life will go great. This is simply the exact opposite of the Bible story that tells us things were great (Gen 1-2), then sin entered the world and stained it (Gen 3), then God instituted His rescue mission, (Gen 3 – Rev 20), and one day all will be made new in eternity (Rev 21-22).

None of this gives me pleasure to write, and I know that but by God’s grace I would be worse than how I’ve portrayed Osteen in this review. I frequently pray that God would not let me be a Demas – a companion of Paul who was praised in the book of Colossians but had abandoned Paul (and Jesus) by the time Paul wrote 2 Timothy. May God have mercy on Joel and draw him to Himself in a real, soul-saving way.