Category Archives: Book Review

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Book Review: Water From a Deep Well

I have mix feelings about Water from a Deep Well: Christian Spirituality from Early Martyrs to Modern Missionaries by Gerald Sittser. On the one hand, it’s very well written and goes to great length to explain some of the major traditions from the history of the Church. On the other hand, it didn’t go deep enough to put many of these disciplines into practices. It was very wide but sometimes very shallow. Even more concerning, I felt like some of the traditions were “all bad.” What I mean by “all bad” is that I didn’t feel like a couple of the traditions were redeemable and would have been better off left out of this devotional survey of Church history.

For example, I didn’t find the chapter on icons and saints to be as helpful as it could have been. Spiritual heroes are great and we find them in the Bible, so my objection isn’t there. What I found unnecessary was how in-depth the author went into iconography. Biographies are great because they give us practical examples of what it looks like to live for Christ, but I didn’t feel comfortable with the adoration that icons received. To be fair, the author remains very impartial in his discussions, but I feel like he sacrificed discernment for the sake of neutrality. Simply by virtue of including iconography, he has provided an implicit endorsement of its use. The book is marketed and even self-described as a book that will take us into some of the valuable things from our past we’ve forgotten and should recover. For this reason, if something was included in the book, it was implicitly endorsed. I disagreed with some of the “old ways” that were endorsed.

That being said, I do agree with the book’s central anthem:  “There is more. So much more!” It’s easy in a world dominated by the latest Tweet to develop an attention span and cultural/historical perspective like that of a fruit fly. I definitely feel as though the 2,000 year history of the Church is an oft untapped gold mine of examples, testimonies, and lessons that we can learn from. As I mentioned in my review of Thirsting for God, I plan on making it a routine to dig deeper into the rich history we’re all a part of. That being said, I plan on doing so with great discernment so I can “swallow the meat and spit out the bones” as a dear friend of mine has put it.

I think my favorite two chapters of the book were the chapter on the martyrs and the chapter on the Reformation. As Gerald L. Sittser put it, “The martyrs’ fate might not be ours. But their faith and conviction must be” (pg. 48). Sittser makes the assertion several times throughout the book, and I agree, that our lukewarm, self-help Gospel needs to be replaced with an authentic, self-denying faith that seeks to make Christ king of all facets of life. And I feel like the best way to do that is through the method of the Reformers: “returning to one central message [in our preaching and teaching]—Jesus Christ is the very Word of God who came to reveal God and make us right with God” (230). I hope that my faith will be like that of the martyrs and my teaching will be like that of the Reformers.

In the end, I probably would not recommend this book to a young, undiscerning Christian. Nor would I recommend it in its entirety to a mature Christian. Instead, I would likely recommend about half of the chapters while suggesting someone skip the other half. Bottom line, I would only recommend this book to people who are very discerning and who really want to learn about the history of the church in a devotional manner.

Book Review: Thirsting for God

Thirsting for God by Gary Thomas

Thirsting for God: Spiritual Refreshment for the Sacred Journey is the first Gary Thomas book I read and I have to say that in a world of “cutting-edge ministry techniques” and “ground-breaking theology” I found his retrospective approach to be very, very refreshing. For some time now, I’ve had the idea in the back of my head that it would be very beneficial to read some of the Puritans, some of the Reformers, some of the Middle Age classics, or perhaps even some of the early church fathers; but I’ve always been too busy reading things that were written within my lifetime.

However, after seeing the rich depth that the last two millennia worth of brothers and sisters in Christ have to offer us, I feel as though I’ve been eating a lot of Applebee’s and Red Lobster while a genuine, gourmet feast awaits me. At the end of Thirsting for God, there’s a helpful list of suggested reading that spans many centuries. I plan on reading a handful—if not all, eventually—of them within the next few years. I have decided to make a pattern from now on of alternating my contemporary, modern reading with the classics. Or, at the very least, I want to knock out one classic a year.

Perhaps the most helpful part was Gary’s comparison of our modern attitudes verses those of Christians past. One great example is where he criticizes the modern misconception that many modern Christians “work too hard” and “just don’t rest in grace” (pg. 275). He then turns that notion on its head by comparing modern devotion to devotion of the past; there simply is no comparison. Modern Christians–myself included–have spread ourselves too thin and leave very little of ourselves for the Lord. Far too often, He gets the leftovers of our lives; He gets what we haven’t invested in our careers and hobbies. Comparing that to some of the ascetic practices of the past makes me wonder how devoted I am. This is a humbling yet simultaneously inspiring realization.

Two other areas that encouraged me were his discussion of the dark night of the soul and his discussion of a Christian view of death. The dark night of the soul is a topic that is rarely, if ever, addressed today. I’ve never heard a sermon on it and have only read about it in obscure places. I’ve never seen an article about it in Relevant, Christianity Today, or on any blog. In short, the dark night of the soul is a stage of Christian growth  where God strips away some of the joys of following Him to test our devotion. It’s essentially a gut check, and at the end of this dark night, we emerge to realize that we don’t cherish the feelings that come from knowing God, but we instead cherish Him alone. This was common knowledge to Christians of the past.

The second area—death—was reassuring because, until I read Gary’s explanation of how past Christians have viewed death, I thought I had a morbid preoccupation or even and obsession with my mortality! I literally think about my death every single day. I try to live my life in light of my deathbed. What will I wish I had done? What will I wish I had done less of? (For example, on my deathbed, I will not wish I had spent more time on Facebook.) How can I live my life in a way that makes sense in light of eternity? My greatest desire it so be able to quote Second Timothy 4:7 on my deathbed; I believe it is impossible to do that unless I intentionally live towards that end. I hope to leave a legacy that God will use to bring much glory to His name, and I know that can only happen if I make every effort to live this life with the fullest dedication to God’s glory. Therefore, I found great comfort from reading Gary’s chapters about death.

Overall, this book has inspired me to plumb the depths of the great classics of Christianity so that I may gain a greater perspective of what it means to live for Christ in this world. It has about 40 chapters, they’re all short, so I would recommend it as a great devotional book.

Book Review: Christ Formed in You

I can honestly say this is the best book I read in 2011. If you only have time to read one book this year, this is the one I recommend. In fact I loved it so much I bought it for two people as Christmas presents. This is a book I hope to read annually.

After reading Christ Formed in You: The Power of the Gospel for Personal Change by Brian G. Hedges, I have to say I’m very disappointed I haven’t heard more preaching on some of the topics this book covers. Most specifically, I’ve never heard anyone preach a sermon about mortification or vivification; yet these seem like some of the basics that every Christian should know. I’ve read the epistles a dozen times but only once have I heard someone else talk about the putting off/putting on that Paul describes. (The only other book I’ve read that covers this is God without Religion by Andrew Farley.) I felt as though, after reading Christ Formed in You, that this is the meat and potatoes of our involvement in progressive sanctification. I feel like these are essential topics that need to get taught more in our churches.

Of greatest importance is Hedges’ insistence that we never “move on” from the Gospel; instead we are to be rooted and established in the Gospel; it is the soil from which we grow. This is something that I had to learn early on when I started taking theology classes. After a couple semesters my studies became a detached, sterile exercise and my relationship with God started to suffer significantly. I took a few semesters off (during a deployment) and managed to recover the Gospel for myself, but it would have been easier if I had known much of what is covered in Christ Formed in You.

If book publications are any indicator, it seems as though there is a revival in “Gospel awareness” among influential pastors. I feel as though we will see a huge movement of “Gospel-centered” preaching, teaching, and ministry arise from the next generation of church leaders. I’m excited to be a part of it and certainly want to learn more about how to apply the Gospel to my daily life.

Overall, I think this was an excellent, refreshing book that covers many of the basics of Christian living. Ideally, I would recommend that young Christians read it so as to start their spiritual formation on a solid foundation. It’s a great book with lots of solid, applicable teaching.

Book Review: Erasing Hell

Yesterday I received Erasing Hell: What God said about eternity, and the things we made up by Francis Chan and Preston Sprinkle in the mail. I read it that same evening. I was, to be honest, riveted by their response to Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived by Rob Bell. With deep and respectable humility, Francis Chan and Preston Sprinkle seek to faithfully and honestly confront both their assumptions about hell and what the Bible says about hell. The result is a book that very carefully examines the historical context of Jesus’ words about hell and what His followers said about this difficult topic in the rest of the New Testament.

What I appreciate most about this book is that the authors are emphatic about the fact that this is not a pedantic, scholarly, hair-splitting debate about a doctrine; hell is something we Christians can’t afford to be wrong about. If we claim there is no hell, and we’re wrong, then we’re sending people to a place we’ve convinced them doesn’t exist! Over and over, perhaps in every chapter, the authors remind the reader that we’re not just splitting doctrinal hairs here, we’re talking about the eternal destiny of people–some of whom we know and love.

Thus, with a profound appreciation for the weight of this topic, Chan and Sprinkle look at the key passages surrounding hell to arrive at a faithful conclusion–regardless of whether or not their initial assumptions are proven right or they win the argument. And, the authors openly admit that they don’t want there to be a hell; a sentiment I believe we can all agree with. But, like the authors say, our disliking of hell doesn’t mean it isn’t a reality.

There are two sections of the book that are perhaps the most valuable. First, in Chapter 5: What Does This Have to Do with Me?, the authors point out that many of the warnings Jesus issued about hell were to religious people. Jesus warned that “many” people would come to Him and say that they had done great things in His name, but He would reply “I never knew you; depart from me” (Matt 7:23). This isn’t a warning to atheists, vegans, Muslim extremists, or _____________ (insert your favorite stereotypical villain here). It’s a warning to people who genuinely think they’re following God!

Second, and what resounded with me the most, is in Chapter 6: “What If God…?” where the authors remind us that God’s ways and thoughts are so much higher than ours that the difference is like the Heavens and the earth! The point being that it’s incredibly arrogant of us to think we can pass judgment on we think how God should run things. Is it possible that God has a more mature and developed sense of justice than we do? Here are some quotes that I found particularly thought-provoking:

  • “We must come to a place where we can let God be God. We need to surrender our perceived right to determine what is just and humbly recognize that God alone gets to decide how He is going to deal with people.” (Pg. 131)
  • “Let’s not think that spending a bit of time meditating on the mysteries of the universe places us on a level that allows us to call God into question.” (Pg. 133-134)
  • “The fact is, Scripture is filled with divine actions that don’t fit our human standards of logic or morality. But they don’t need to, because we are the clay and He is the Potter. We need to stop trying to domesticate God or confine Him to tidy categories and compartments that reflect our human sentiments rather than His inexplicable ways.” (Pg. 135)
  • “It’s incredibly arrogant to pick and choose which incomprehensible truths we embrace. No one wants to ditch God’s plan of redemption [the cross], even though it doesn’t make sense to us. Neither should we erase God’s revealed plan of punishment because it doesn’t sit well with us. As soon as we do this, we are putting God’s actions in submission to our own reasoning, which is a ridiculous thing for clay to do.” (Pg. 136)
Overall, I found this to be a very challenging and humbling book. I highly recommend it, especially if you’ve read Love Wins. You can’t walk away from Erasing Hell without being compelled to share the message of hope and salvation with everyone you meet. Because, like the authors repeatedly state, this is an area where we can’t afford to be wrong!

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