Judges For You: A Review

I have always been a fan of Timothy Keller’s work. He is one of a handful of pastor/authors that can clearly and succinctly delve into scripture in a way that is not only applicable but is also scholarly. Too many books in the Christian market cater to the self-help genre of writing and do not really prove useful. Many others are so highly technically that they do not transfer well to the medium of audiobook. That said, Keller does something amazing here: He has created a verse-by-verse commentary that is both easy to listen to and is also well researched and referenced. If audiobooks are to be a regular medium for biblical commentaries in the future, Timothy Keller may well have found the format.

As I mentioned, what pleasantly surprised me was that this book was nearly verse-by-verse. Keller takes a section of text and then gives an overview of it. He then breaks it down into smaller units pointing out all the cogent points that address the overall themes and issues in the book. This offers a very straightforward structure that is easy to follow. This allows the reader to either listen straight through or to bounce around to specific sections. This makes the book not only applicable to the casual student, but it also makes it useful to the pastor writing a sermon. The easy, natural language Keller uses in not intimidating or overly technical at any point.

Keller follows his major sections with questions for the reader to think about. These focus around the major themes and sub-points of both the text and his commentary on it. Students will find these useful for recursive learning. These sections are short; however, and should not detract from the experience for the more scholarly listener. These same listeners will likely appreciate the multitude of cross-references and supporting proof-texts that Keller uses liberally throughout his writing.

Maurice England does an excellent of narrating Keller’s book. What was particularly well done was the way he varied his rate and incorporated pauses in the more complex areas of the text. A particular example would be how he would often give a short pause between verse references. I assume he did this knowing, that since this was an audio version, the listener would need time to either pause the recording and take note or (at least) make a mental note of some or all of the references. He was also able to pace himself differently between the narrative sections of the Bible and the more technical aspects provided by Keller. England and the book’s director/producer should be applauded for this attention to detail.

Dr. Nicholson reviews academic, Christian living, and fiction books for a variety of publishers in an array of formats. He is never paid for any of his reviews. He writes these strictly as a courtesy to his students at Desert bible Institute and for any other readers that might find his insights valuable. For more reviews or information, visit Dr. Nicholson’s blog at drtnicholson.wordpress.com.

A copy of the book was generously offered to Dr. Nicholson by christianaudio.com in exchange for this unbiased review.

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Stop Asking Jesus Into Your Heart: A Review

Stop Asking Jesus Into Your Heart by J. D. Greear is a funny, applicable, honest book about the very real problem people have of only understanding the justification element of salvation. Greear takes a look at misconceptions, bumper sticker theology, and gives some perspective into the long haul of what it means to be a Christian. This book, while easy to read, delves into the superficial, egocentric theology so many Christians have embraced.
An application that Greear uses all the way through his book is the importance of a life of repentance. He in no way purports justification through works; he never even hints at salvation through works. Instead, he shares that once justified we should rest in Christ through a life of repentance. The author uses a number of excellent analogies to walk the reader through exactly what this means and what it does not mean. In doing this, he exposes many of the misconceptions that skip the repentance (sanctification) step of salvation. Additionally, Greear encourages those who do not fully understand the sanctification process and therefore feel that they need to recommit themselves to Christ again-and-again (thus the title) by showing what it means to live a life of repentance.
About three-fourths the way through the book, Greear shifts into a style of writing that roughly resembles a detailed checklist to help the reader self-evaluate the state their walk with Christ. He augments this with his appendices at the end of the book to offer the readers a clear, cogent way to appraise themselves. Greear does not present this in a “to do” list format. Neither is he dogmatic to a certain system of theology. Rather, he offers a diagnostic to correspond with the advice that he has offered throughout the book.
One of the things that I appreciated about this book is how clearly Greear differentiated between works based salvation and living a life of repentance. Repeatedly through the book, Greear points out that we must rest in the finished work of Christ. His “chair” analogy really drives home this point. His book offers arguably the best explanation of what a repentant life looks like without promoting works based theology. This point is touchstone in the ideas of faith and repentance and is unfortunately misunderstood (or just skimmed over) by many Christians and some pastors in the world today. Greear has written an amazing book that will affect many lives provided his readers can put their self-serving “Just as if I never did it” or “Once saved always saved” theologies on the backburner for a moment and really hear what he is saying.

The Adversary: A Review

In reading Erin Evans contribution to the The Sundering series, her book The Adversary turned out to be a mixed bag. Evans does a masterful job of sharing setting and action with the reader through her use of imagery and choice of diction. Her character development however is a long and painful process that detracts from the plot as a whole.

In the opening of the book, as well as at several points throughout the book, Evans does a superb job of using all five senses to create a tableaux vivant for the reader. This quality allows the readers to feel as if they are actually experiencing what is being described. This is a wonderful and rare trait that only a few fantasy authors have mastered. Additionally, Evans has a well-developed vocabulary which she also uses to good effect. In several places, it is obvious that she chooses to use the best word rather than a simpler, less descriptive word that would be more easily understood by the reader. Both of these qualities drew me in early on and provided excellent moments of respite throughout the novel.

The great detractor in this book was the far too overly developed scenes where the characters’ relationships are introduced and explored. Now some of this may have to do with the fact that Evens is the only female writer in The Sundering series. Her style may too sharply contrast the other masculine writers. Along that same line of thinking, it may be that she is following in the footsteps of to highly accomplished authors. More likely, it is my dislike for the penchant of female fantasy authors to wax romantic rather than adventurous in this genre of writing. There are exceptions of course, but this seems to be an unfortunately common trait.

When I find myself skipping ahead pages to get past the deluge of motivations, feeling, and interpretations of each character examined in a myriad of minute details, there is a serious problem. If, as a reader, you are looking for wondrously good description wrapped around intricate character development through interaction and relationship this is likely the book for you. If you are more into a plot that steadily moves forward in a non-brooding fashion that can interconnect earlier elements of the series, you may wish to look elsewhere.

Dr. Nicholson reviews academic, Christian living, and fiction books for a variety of publishers in an array of formats. He is never paid for any of his reviews. For more reviews or information, visit Dr. Nicholson’s blog at drtnicholson.wordpress.com.

The book for this review was provided free of charge by Wizards of the Coast through NetGalley.com. This book was provided without the expectation or requirement of a positive response. Thank you to both the publisher and NetGalley.com for the opportunity to both read your advanced copy and to provide this unpaid evaluation. All opinions in this review reflect the views of the author and not NetGalley.com or the publisher.

Faith in the Fog: A Review

Of all the possible things for Faith in the Fog to remind me of it is the Composition classes that I teach. Where it particularly becomes obvious is when my classes start to delve into basic grammar. It seems like every student that comes in has some odd trick or crazy notion on how grammar is supposed to work. I even had my mother call me up once to ask, “What is that trick you told me about that always lets you get grammar right?” Confused I hesitantly responded, “Study and apply it everyday.” This was not the answer she was looking for.

What I realized in reading Jeff Lucas’s book is that Christians can be much the same way about religion. They have heard some clever saying, read some bumper sticker, or skimmed the newest, most popular book and they think they know the “trick” to religion. They then proceed to offer awful advice that is neither biblical nor fruitful. In almost all cases, these pithy, easy answers lead new (and even not-so-new) Christians down a dark path of confusion and disappointment. What is the trick to understanding the Bible? “Study and apply it everyday.”

Even this is too simple by far, but at least it is a step in the right direction. This, along with similar concepts, is what Lucas is exploring in Faith in the Fog. Through a personal narrative that helps the reader understand his trials and triumphs, Lucas is able to share how well-meaning people with a limited understand and application of the Bible can do more harm than good. Moreover, he shows by example, and some biblical reference, how we can become our own worst enemy.

The implication that Lucas creates is that many Christians have bought into a glamorized, Hollywood friendly version of what it means to be one of the faithful. We hear often-embellished stories of spiritual success that seems to demonize the person who is not instantly caught-up. We hear massively over-simplified explanations of topics that scholars having been debating for centuries, and we begin to doubt ourselves and our walk with Christ. Lucas sums this up when he says, “someone asks a question or honestly expresses their struggle with doubt or admits to a concern about doctrine that in turn creates controversy, and the label-pinning begins. Liberal. Doubter. Even heretic.”

What Lucas does well is that he shows that becoming a disciple is a life-long journey. It is sometimes a journey of striving ahead and other times a journey of regression. It is a journey during which we will have friends like Job who offer us well-sounding but ultimately ridiculous advice. More importantly, it is a journey that we make with the Spirit leading us. A journey of prayer, Bible study, thoughtful seeking, and hopefully good teaching. While the journey is rarely easy, we can be comforted by knowing that Christ is there with us, and that “he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” (Phil 1:6)

As someone who is also a composition teacher, and not just a theologian, I did have some starts and stops with the book literarily. In some places, the narrative did not flow from idea-to-idea very smoothly leaving me wondering where Lucas was going with his points – sometimes for pages. In other places, his biblical illustrations, while accurate, where somewhat clumsily entered into and extracted from. There were also areas where the reader is given an over-abundance of information that is not strictly pertinent to what is being discussed. I assume this was meant to create a sense of cathartic connection between the reader and the author but it made long sections seem to amble on. Finally, there were areas where Lucas’s wording was a bit stilted and I had to re-read what he wrote, but (to an extent) I am nit-picking. In the arm wrestling contest between the theologian and the writer in me: however, the theologian wins hands down. Lucas has made some very important point and offers some good advice both implicitly and explicitly in his book Faith in the Fog.

Trent Nicholson, Ph.D., D.Min.

Desert Bible Institute, President

Dr. Nicholson reviews academic, Christian living, and fiction books for a variety of publishers in an array of formats. He is never paid for any of his reviews. He writes these strictly as a courtesy to his students at Desert Bible Institute and for any other readers that might find his insights valuable. For more reviews or information, visit Dr. Nicholson’s blog at drtnicholson.wordpress.com.

The book for this review was provided free of charge by Zondervan Non-Fiction through NetGalley.com. This book was provided without the expectation or requirement of a positive response. Thank you to both the publisher and NetGalley.com for the opportunity to both read your advanced copy and to provide this unpaid evaluation. All opinions in this review reflect the views of the author and not DBI, NetGalley.com, or the publisher.

 

 

The Good and Beautiful Community: A Review

Christ teaching in the Temple

Christ teaching in the Temple (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Dr. James Bryan Smith has written a good book for small group instruction as the third installment of his Apprentice series. The Good and Beautiful Community does a respectable job of looking at the importance of serving as one church under Christ and developing a faith community. All the ideas that Dr. Smith shares are both biblical and clearly from the heart. He obviously has a love for both God and God’s people. Additionally, all his arguments are intelligent and well thought out.

There are several reasons that this book will work well for a small group. The author has broken each idea down into small, manageable sections that could easily be read and discussed. He also has specific tasks for each member to do between the hearing of the current session and the next session. His ideas are organized and clear and he uses very little advanced vocabulary that would confuse the novice or lay-reader.

All of that said, I didn’t particularly enjoy the book. While there were a number of “nuggets” of wisdom that were useful, there wasn’t a solid through-point that tied it all together. I’m not saying there wasn’t a theme; because, there was. It just had the feel that these were several individual lessons strung together under one umbrella of “community” rather than a steady building of one thought. Again, this might work well for a group with expanses of time between readings, but becomes tiresome to the individual reader.

Another issue was Smith’s use of diction. Admittedly, I have not listened to his first two books, but it seems that he is trying to create his own, relevant terminology by using catch words and catch phrases of his own devising. The problem is they aren’t all that catchy. His attempt to create a common vocabulary is clunky and occasionally is too vague to accomplish his purposes. This seems to be a matter of personal preference and style; however, since many of his quotes and examples from other authors have this same aesthetically displeasing discordance.

Lastly, it seems that most of his examples seem to be limited to himself, his seminars, and Dallas Willard. While none of these are bad, it does lend a lack of scope to that he is saying. A more wide-ranging and balanced sense of research would not only level out some of the biases of the book  but also allow the reader to experience other viewpoints on community so that they would have a fuller understanding of the importance of faith community.

I have to assume that it was the author’s style more than Maurice England’s reading that made listening to this audio version challenging. England, as usual, read with crisp diction and a steady pace. While it was a smidgen more “announcer” than it was narrator, I thought it was good considering the challenges the book presented. I was left with the impression, at the end of this book, like it was good and I would be happy to endorse it to a novice study group, but I would be hesitant to recommend it as an individual read especially if the reader was going to listen straight through rather than utilizing the week-by-week structure established in the book. It seems likely the author realized this since he gave similar caveats in the introduction of the book – only with a more positive spin.

This review, by Dr. Nicholson, has been provided courtesy of Desert Bible Institute www.desertbibleinstitute.com.

Dr. Nicholson reviews academic, Christian living, and fiction books for a variety of publishers in an array of formats. He is never paid for any of his reviews. He writes these strictly as a courtesy to his students at Desert bible Institute and for any other readers that might find his insights valuable. For more reviews or information, visit Dr. Nicholson’s blog at drtnicholson.wordpress.com.

A copy of the book was generously offered to Dr. Nicholson by christianaudio.com in exchange for this unbiased review.

 

The Godborn: A Review

It struck me as surprising that Wizards of the Coast would have various authors write the different installments of The Sundering. In rose in my mind questions of plot continuity, character development, tone, and various other aspects that are often honed by an individual writer’s style. After reading the first book in the trilogy; however, I was hopefully. Salvatore did an amazing job setting up the sense of conflict, characters, and progression of the plot.

I started this second book, The Godborn, therefore with hopeful anticipation. In this book’s favor were its description and sense of atmosphere. Paul Kemp does an excellent job of setting up and describing a scene. He has a gift for juxtaposing surprising, visual elements to give the reader snapshots of the characters and the scene. Additionally, he incorporates a strong vocabulary into his description that is uncommon is much of fantasy genre today. This gives him a sophistication and makes him an enjoyable read.

Unfortunately, I have not read any of the Erevis Cale books that he is evidently so famous for. In addition to this, Kemp did not go into too much backstory and therefore the constantly shifting characters and setting was baffling. I’m sure that if I had read his other books this problem would have diminished; however, it is not the new reader’s job to catch up with the author. A second element that I didn’t care for was the over-the-top characters. It seemed that, in contrast to the Salvatore installment, that every character was a super-human with god-like abilities and possessions. Now this may not have been the author’s choice, but from what I read it seems consistent with his previous writing. The problem with this is this choice puts the focus not on the character but instead to cool stuff he can do.

My hope is that Kemp was simply setting up some story line elements that are necessary for later books in the series. The problem is that 336 pages of set-up is far too much. A more complete fleshing out of the story arc, far more character development, and some resolvable conflict carried out by a cathartic protagonist and antagonist would do wonders for this book. Ultimately, the work felt rushed. A few more drafts and a couple more months of narrative expansion might have produced a truly epic work. As it is, the book is lackluster and a potential stumbling block for The Sundering.

Dr. Nicholson reviews academic, Christian living and fiction books for a variety of publishers in an array of formats. He is never paid for any of his reviews. For more reviews or information, visit  Dr. Nicholson’s blog at drtnicholson.wordpress.com.

The book for this review was provided free of charge by Wizards of the Coast through NetGalley.com. This book was provided without the expectation or requirement of a positive response. Thank you to both the publisher and NetGalley.com for the opportunity to both read your advanced copy and to provide this unpaid evaluation. All opinions in this review reflect the views of the author and not NetGalley.com or the publisher.

 

 

Foundations for Youth Ministry: A Review

Youth Ministry powerpoint

Youth Ministry powerpoint (Photo credit: Susan WD)

Several years ago, my church was going through a new youth pastor about every 6 months: a frightening turnover in any environment. While this problem only lasted a couple of years, it was stressful and disconcerting to say the least. What we noticed was that many people were not equipped to do what is required of an effective youth pastor in this current political and sociological environment. In several different board meetings, mounting frustration was shared that there needed to be a resource that new and struggling youth pastors could turn to. I, as one of the pastors, poured over the materials that were available at the time.

In looking at the materials that were available 4-5 years ago, what I found was that a small percentage were good, but overly academic and with very little application. What’s more, few if any of them took into consideration to modern social climate either out of neglect of the author or out of age of the text. The remainder of the books I found were rife with psychotherapy babble and extra-biblical ideas. What I was looking for was a baseline for youth pastors not an inspirational novella or a how-to book on how to improve my youth ministry through social networking, yikes!

What we find in Dean Borgman’s book Foundations for Youth Ministry is the book I need a half-decade ago. The author lays out a clear, easy-to-follow theological foundation that informs a new youth pastor about the ideas, approaches, and doctrines that are out there in addition to providing a step-by-step form of exegetical interpretation that remains biblical while allowing enough room to show the youth of the church how scripture is not just applicable but fundamental in their day-to-day lives.

Borgman then goes into many of the common apologetic and application issues that teens run into (family, peers, sexuality, culture, technology) and offers pastors a way to show how each is addressed in the Bible. Perhaps the most valuable element Borgman shares is his demonstration of how we are not to make the everything Bible applicable to the world but instead how everything in the world is applicable to the Bible. This consistent, scripture-oriented approach to youth ministry is truly the foundational element of this book.

If the book stopped here it would be good, but Borgman goes on to show how the lessons for both youth and the pastor branch off into other elements of ministry. The ideas of team-building, relationships, and outreach are, while not keystone to the text, clearly implied throughout. Above all, the author stresses the high calling of youth ministry and ends with this thought “I am convinced that God wants us to be as wise as possible about ourselves, young people, families, and cultures around us. God also wants us to understand both the heavenly, spiritual side of the church and its human, institutional realities.”

Trent Nicholson, Ph.D., D.Min.

Desert Bible Institute, President

Dr. Nicholson reviews academic, Christian living, and fiction books for a variety of publishers in an array of formats. He is never paid for any of his reviews. He writes these strictly as a courtesy to his students at Desert Bible Institute and for any other readers that might find his insights valuable. For more reviews or information, visit Dr. Nicholson’s blog at drtnicholson.wordpress.com.

The book for this review was provided free of charge by Baker Academic through NetGalley.com. This book was provided without the expectation or requirement of a positive response. Thank you to both the publisher and NetGalley.com for the opportunity to both read your advanced copy and to provide this unpaid evaluation. All opinions in this review reflect the views of the author and not DBI, NetGalley.com, or the publisher.