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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.

 

 

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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.

 

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.

A Call to Resurgence: A Review

After listening to Mark Driscoll’s newest book, A Call to Resurgence, I feel like I just went through a week of seminar…on fast forward…uphill. I would gladly tell you what Driscoll talks about if only I could figure out what he left out. A Call to Resurgence is a fast paced, insightful, straight-forward work that doesn’t bother to pull any punches. In his introduction, Driscoll sums this up by saying that there are two primary groups that will listen to his book: those who agree with him on some level and those who are looking to cast stones. Being a good, considerate Christian, he has piled up said stones for the second group’s convenience.

Driscoll presents his well-researched, well thought-out points in his patent off-the-cuff sarcastic style. This will likely leave the listeners thinking, laughing, or grinding their teeth all depending on how close they are to Drisoll’s position on a myriad of biblical, doctrinal, and missional topics. Regardless of what side of each of these issues you fall on, the arguments presented are not easily waved away. Driscoll sets up solid arguments with far-reaching, real-life examples coupled with scholarly proof. Feel free to dislike what he has to say; however, if listeners can set aside their pre-conceived notions and biases for a few hours they will find that Driscoll makes some very valid, if somewhat disturbing, observations about both the church and the direction of Christianity today.

One of the areas that Driscoll addresses that was particularly beneficial was the idea of “tribes”. He talks about what we believe and why we believe it. I have always found myself shying away from classification since I felt it might limit me or stymie my spiritual growth in some way. After listening to what Driscoll shared though, I realized that we need to know what we’re not to know what we are. Additionally, it is difficult (if not impossible) to explain what you believe unless you know what beliefs are out there. It’s a little like explaining to someone who has been blind since birth what the color blue is. With no basis of comparison, explanation is largely an exercise in futility.

A secondary area that I found engaging was the author’s detailed analysis of various doctrines and how they are viewed by the various “tribes” of the Christian faith. I have to admit that I was so impressed with this section that I went out and purchased a hardcover of his book Doctrine: What Christians Should Believe. I did this primarily because I wanted to hear even more information it greater detail. I have to admit that I also did this to slow him down. In listening to this section, it felt like the theological equivalent of putting instant milk into condensed soup and warming it up in a microwave. If had gone through in any more quickly his flux capacitor would have engaged and he would have gone back in time! I’m not sure if this is a criticism or my awe at the fact that he could cram that much information into so little space so quickly. Airline passengers around the world grow green with envy at his professional alacrity as well speak. If only they could do physically what he does verbally, they could pack all the inventory of their local super Wal-Mart into a carry-on bag.

A final area that was not only useful but highly scholarly was Driscoll’s fairly lengthy appendix on church history. I found it useful and enlightening to quickly trace where many of the roots of ideas and values in many American “tribes” came from. It made me wonder in fact if they even know. As a pastor of an independent, non-denominational church, I find myself working in the midst of churches ranging from charismatics to fundamentalists. It was useful to see how coming out of the same place, historically speaking, these churched ended up where they are. It was enlightening to see the predominate points that we all agree as well as the secondary points that we differ on. Not only was this engaging from an academic sense, but also it gave me some tools for crossing the imagined boundaries that exist between brothers and sisters within the faith community.

Mike Chamberlain did a great job of narrating this book. He had a great sense of pacing, tone, and timing. At one point I actually stopped the recording to check that it wasn’t the author doing the narrating: always a good sign. I look forward to hearing more voice-work done by Chamberlain. The Christian community needs more understandable, talented speakers to help share God’s Word.

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.

Educating All God’s Children: A Review

Primary pupils in group work in a small villag...

Primary pupils in group work in a small village school in southern Laos (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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

The book Educating All God’s Children by Nicole Baker Fulgham is a well-researched, well-organized book that will prove useful to both educators and the church in examining what they can do to empower students to do better in their classes and to be more confident about their own abilities. Fulgham graduated from the University of Michigan and later joined Teach For America where she taught fifth grade in Compton, California. She received her doctorate in education from UCLA with a focus on urban education policy and teacher preparation. Her varied experiences and education are what add to the quality and academic clarity of her book.

Having been in education (both public and private: both secular and Christian) for nearly 20 years now, I have to admit a certain amount of trepidation in approaching this book. Over the years, my professional learning community has been regaled with books on how to fix the ills that plague our education system. In Southern California particularly, I have been approached by professionals representing virtually every minority and special-interest group telling me how their approach will “level the playing field.” Most of these solutions are self-serving and at best put a bandage on the problem offering many complaints and few genuine solutions.

Fulgham’s book, while suffering from some of the same problems, is probably the most useful that I have read for several reasons. First, she takes the time to break down each of the issues into manageable sub-sections. These allow her to be specific about the larger problems that she is talking about. This has the benefit of addressing specific concerns that her audience might have. Perhaps this was best handled in her section on low-income families.  Additionally, the clear, well-chosen facts and statistics she regularly uses clearly relate to a particular issue rather than being loose and non-relatable. It is interesting that her study on low-income families is one of her best sections since she grew up in a middle-class household.

In issues of race and culture, I appreciated her up front nature when she openly admits that as an African American that she would explain some of “the academic achievement gap by playing the dreaded ‘race card.’” She certainly gets much more prolific and animated on racial topics than she does others that touch a little less closely to her personal life and childhood. Nonetheless, she continues to handle this in the same logical, well-supported manner that she has handled other issues in her book. One area that seems to be lacking; however, is that she doesn’t seem to address the issue of culture. She seems to side step the issue that different cultures have different values in relationship to education and those values are reflected in a family’s daily life. Perhaps she does this because there is little that we can do to change an entire culture, but it is an important issue. Many minority families put far more stress on family (older siblings babysitting during school day)  and provision (teens holding a part-time job to pay the bills) than on academic achievement. It is her position that all parents what their children to do well and to go as far academically as they are able: This is an overly broad generalization and  just isn’t the case. Examples: “I believe all parents hope that their children become well educated” and “I’ve found that almost all parents do want the very best education for their children.” It also seems that she ignores the effects of “modeling” by the parents in not seeking out higher education (or even full-time employment) and the long term effects this has on students.

Overall, I liked what Fulgham had to say about Christian involvement in public education. While understandably many churches are limited in what they can do within the public school system, Fulgham offers a number of facts and statistics that should led readers to think about what their churches could do to get more involved in students’ education. There were two drawbacks I ran into with this. This first is that much of the practical information seemed to center around elementary students. This makes a great deal of sense since many of the problems, as Fulgham’s research clearly shows, happens by age nine. What I did have a problem with was her innuendos that white Christians were uninterested and uninvolved in public education. An example of this is where she asserts, “While many White evangelical Christians have avoided public schools other Christians– including Catholics, African Americans, Hispanics, and many Protestants- have been actively engaged in the work of quality education for the poor and minority children for decades.” Statements like this will undoubtedly turn off many evangelicals (not to mention Whites) to the otherwise good, supported, and academic information that she is offering.

I would suggest this book to the students at my college or the teachers in the local public school system with the caveat that there are some heavily slanted racial and doctrinal underpinnings that the reader will have to deal with. My advice would be to set these aside temporarily and to delve instead into the solid, useable areas of the book where the author is not trying to further her own biases. This is a good book academically speaking, unfortunately like many books of its ilk; it carries with it a bit of baggage.

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 Brazos Press a division of Baker Publishing 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.

Evangelical Theology: A Review

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

Michael Bird has endeavored to (and has been successful in) create a unique system of theology that is highly applicable to his specific audience in his newest book Evangelical Theology. Dr. Bird received his PhD from the University of Queensland and is a theology lecturer at Ridley Melbourne College of Mission and Ministry in Melbourne, Australia. He is the author of Jesus and the Origins of the Gentile Mission and The Saving Righteousness of God: Studies on Paul, Justification, and the New Perspective.

It ought to be noticed, before we as reviewers go too far afield, that Bird wrote this book for the benefit of a specific audience. The intended student or pastor using this text was meant to be from the evangelical churches that embrace the general patterns of belief and practice of the cardinal points of evangelicalism. Bird refers to the examples given by Alister McGrath as the basis for this premise:

-The supreme authority of Scripture in leading a Christian Life

-Jesus Christ as incarnate God and the Savior of humanity

-Lordship of the Holy Spirit in a Christian’s life

-A need for personal conversion

With these points of interest, audience, and delimitations Bird has developed a well formulated treatise. What he sets out to do, and accomplishes, is to strike a balance between biblical exposition and the on-going theological debates on Christian-living and application. In a genre filled with topical or author based analyses and highly specialized exegetical writing, Bird finds a happy middle. Now I am uncertain if he has truly written a work that is totally accessible to the layman unless his definition is limited to college (if not graduate) level readers . He does indeed breakdown his ideas very clearly and in a logical manner, but the language and structure of the book is far more oriented towards an academic reader.

What I perhaps appreciated the most is how Bird attempted to be the middleman to the growing population of evangelical churches who embrace the worldly views to such an extent that they actually bend scripture around the values non-Christians already have. One such position is the “come as you are” motif that has become popular especially through some branches of emergent or hipster churches which sometimes take the grace of God and turn it into an excuse to live life however they prefer giving more glory to themselves than to God. While it seems unlikely that he will bring such churches to a fundamentalist viewpoint, he has given them some solid ground with which to make biblical decisions.

For those of his readers who which to delve further into the topics he is delineating, Bird has provided copious footnotes to both explain challenging concepts and to offer other avenues of knowledge. In addition to this, Bird has offered some top-shelf works as further readings to many of the major sections of his book. In his attempt to strike a median between academic and mainstream, Bird has fallen heavily on the academic side. He has presented it however in a fashion that will stretch (but not break) the enthusiastic, well-educated lay-reader.

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 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.

Discipleshift: A Review

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

The book Discipleshift by Jim Putman and Bobby Harrington is a well-written, well-organized book that will prove useful not only to the individual who is examining his own life, but also to the pastor who is re-evaluating the vision for his church.

It wasn’t until reading this book that I ever thought of the breakdown of Christians into different categories of development. Of course, I realized that different people were at different levels, but I never really broke it down. That’s exactly what Discipleshift does: It breaks down these different levels showing the church leader how to address the issues of a person in any given category and how to give that person tools so that they can mature in Christ.

There are many books out there that deal with the fundamental issue of raising up a team and training them and then having those team members start their own teams. I occasionally get irritated with authors that point this out in excruciating detail but never tell you how to raise them up or train them. Books like that tell you to pick good leaders, but rarely tell you how to identify them. They tell you that, as a church vision-caster, they have conversations and meetings as they develop, but they only tell you then end result or success story. Discipleshift fills in a number of those blanks.

The book follows a natural development that helps the reader identify the maturity level of Christians by looking for specific tells or dialogue. Once a person’s place is identified the book describes the struggles that person may be facing and how to specifically equip them to better servants of Christ. It then goes through the process of building them up and sending them out to be a leader for others.

Each section of the book has within it with three helpful elements. The first is the “Ask Dr. Coleman” section. Dr. Coleman is a Senior Professor of Discipleship and Evangelism at Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary. He has both his Ph.D. and D.D. and authored one of the seminal evangelical texts “The Master Plan of Evangelism” used in seminaries across the country. Dr. Colman’s unique take on each of these chapters puts the information given into a real-life application that will help readers see both the connections between ideas and the immediate applicability of that information. The second element is a simple summary that allows readers to review and identify key points in the text. Lastly, are the “Stories of Effectiveness” which are motivational narratives about people who have had positive results in the areas discussed.

This book is neither clinical nor meant to pump up the reader to try yet another model for church growth. This simply is a book meant to fill in the gaps so that we, as leaders, can have some practical, applicable tools to get our congregants from newborns in Christ, craving spiritual milk, to a leaders that can equip those around them to be true disciples of Christ.

 

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 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.