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.

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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.

 

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.)

Ministry of Expansion Reviewed

There are two unique things about this review for me. First, I don’t believe I’ve ever been the first person to review a book on Amazon. Second, I don’t think I’ve ever done a book review where my rating has changed so many times for different reasons as has been the case with this book. (I bounced back and forth between four and five stars about six or seven times.)

The book is exactly as described. Some modern experts on Roland Allen write some chapters in the beginning to set up the context under which Roland Allen wrote his work. These are helpful in themselves, but I was immeasurably helped by listening to JD Payne’s “Strike the Match” podcast on this book before reading even these chapters. I suppose I’m like a lot of potential readers in that I read Missionary Methods St Paul’s or Ours to great benefit as a much younger Christian, but I wasn’t all that familiar with everything else going on around Roland Allen’s life and ministry. The podcast filled in the important details beautifully and I highly commend it to anyone wanting to get this book.

The book is set against the background of Roland Allen’s high church Anglican’s insisting that the only time communion could be served was in the presence of ordained priests. Allen objected to that because in many contexts there was such a shortage of ordained priests that to follow the rule would be to deprive genuine believers of the ordinances entirely. Allen seemed to believe the Anglican power brokers were motivated by fear and in J.D.’s introductory chapter he includes what is a helpful corrective for all of us seeking to prevent error by restricting ministry to a few men.

“We fear corruption and degeneration; when shall we cease to fear them? The roots of that fear are in us, and when shall we eradicate them, and how? There will always be cause for that fear, if we look at men. If we look at Christ, then, we may escape.”

According to Allen’s critique, the root cause of the problem is focusing on the people who could screw up the ordinances rather than the Christ who commanded they be practiced.

This is I think the cement that has me locked into a five star review. How often are we as 21st century church leaders motivated by fear and controlled by the idea that if we just restrict things enough we can prevent all error from the church. This is a ridiculously arrogant notion for if we claim to work to prevent error because of our love for the Church, does not Christ love His bride even more? Is He not also working to cleanse and purify her, which would include protecting her from error? The core concept of Allen’s previously unpublished work is communion, but the application is I think much broader than that. We could use his work as a necessary corrective for all sorts of restrictions we put on church life and ministry that are really just preferences rather than biblical commands. Many times there are logical reasons for these preferences, but when we cling to them as if they are commands we would do well to ask whether that is motivated by fear or by love for Jesus.

Many of the points brought up by Allen in his work remind me of something I heard Francis Chan say once. If we just had the Bible and no church traditions or structures, would we expect things to work they way they do today? I suspect the answer is no. This is the strength of Allen’s whole argument and especially his chapter 4 on The Practice of the Early Church. Are we really content to let the Bible be our guide? How ready are we to read the Bible for it to correct our views rather than to reinforce them? I was challenged on this point a lot.

The book is well written and easy to read. I finished it in a few days while on a business trip. I think it is a very useful resource for anyone who is really ready to challenge some presuppositions about extra-biblical restrictions we put on church life and ministry. Of course Allen’s primary motivation is to encourage his tribe to think about believers in distant lands and should apply it to how we serve unreached people groups and such, but I think it’s a mistake to end there. We should receive the book as a nudge to reevaluate how biblical our positions really are on all sorts of things (ordination, logistics of church gatherings, staffing models, church planting (and especially the fresh movement toward re-planting dying churches), etc.

And this is the reason I moved the review to a five star review. It is Allen’s commitment to practical theology. This book is not a theoretical exercise to him. He is looking at a real issue that was affecting real brothers and sisters in his day and applied theology to it. We have far too many books by far too many authors that talk about the truth of the Bible as if it did not meaningfully affect people for time and eternity. Allen deserves a lot a credit for tackling a topic that would have lost him favor with his high church Anglican peers because he was committed to look out for those without a voice in his circles.

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.