Category Archives: Book Reviews

Book Review of Simonetta Carr’s Martin Luther

luthercoverIt’s been years since I have reviewed a book, but for Simonetta Carr I will break my blogging silence. There are two factors that have changed in my life since I posted my review of Carr’s biography of Knox. First, I have been homeschooling for three years, and secondly, I now have two avid readers, instead of three non-readers.

The first has informed how truly rare these books are. Trying to find a church history curriculum for elementary students has not been difficult. It has been impossible. Carr’s biographies are hands down the best elementary church biography resource available. I appreciated her work two years ago. I treasure it now.

Secondly, I now have two more avid readers living in my house. It is one thing to love a book as a read aloud to children. It is entirely another to have one’s nine year old announce at supper, “Did you know the doors to the Wittenberg cathedral burned in a big fire?” Both the nine year old mackerdoodle and seven year old cheesedoodle were able to read and comprehend the material, while the text is engaging enough for adults to study and enjoy. One can suspect the readability of material, but only real world reading by real world children can prove it.

Now, the story of Martin Luther is a tricky one to tell, especially to children. There is so much more than nailing theses, and much of the things we think we know about Luther aren’t true. Carr’s biography is faithful to the true story of Martin Luther. She includes the well known elements of his life, like the thunderstorm commitment to monasticism, and his nailing 95 theses to a door, and his statement to the Diet of Worms (excluding the oft quoted, but historically inaccurate “here I am, I can do no other.”). She also includes the peasant’s revolt,  the death of two of his children, and his treatise against the Jews later in his life. These elements of Martin Luther’s life are all presented in a gentle way, appropriate for children, while still being faithful to the subject.

Like in her biography of Knox, Carr humanizes Martin Luther. With Knox she made sympathetic an often vilified man. With Luther she makes ordinary a man who has been made so much larger than life. This is, interestingly, more difficult. Luther was a larger than life character. He used large and dramatic language. He had large and dramatic emotions. His life was a large and dramatic one. It is easy to forget that in the midst of that he was a father, husband, and teacher. Simonetta Carr brings that Luther to life. Carr’s other biographies serve as a sort of introduction to faithful men and women in church history that have been forgotten or misrepresented in our modern time. Her biography of Luther serves, instead, as an anchor amidst the hype that surrounds the name “Luther.”

However, to truly appreciate what drove Martin Luther, and some of the events in his life, I think some of that bigness needs to find a place in the story. As I mentioned in my review of Luther on the Christian Life, one of the driving forces in Luther’s theology was the idea of Anfechtungen, or emotional distress that pushes us always to our need for Christ. Luther’s struggle to direct and master his emotions in biblical ways is instructional, even for children. However, no biographer can include the details that every reader believes to be most important. The lack of that aspect of Luther’s life does not diminish this work.

Finally, in reviewing past biographies, I have been remiss not to mention the excellent illustrations contained in each of the books of the series. There is joy in a beautiful book, and this entire series is beautiful, from binding, to font choice, to illustrations. Troy Howell’s work is truly excellent.

 

I received no compensation for this post. I was provided an hard-cover edition for the purpose of review. I was not required to provide a positive one. I keep a disclosure statement here.


An Unsolicited Book Review: Luther on the Christian Life

One of the hardest things for me about transitioning out of the seminary environment is that I have far fewer female friends who care to discuss theology and the deeper things of God. I didn’t realize how much I missed that until my friend Sarah sent me a copy of Carl Trueman’s book Luther on the Christian Life for my birthday this summer. Opening it was a moment of feeling so completely understood by someone. It was such a wonderful gift.

It was an even more wonderful gift as I read it.

I find Luther difficult to read. His style is bombastic and wordy and he assumes his readers to have his classical education. Carl Trueman, on the other hand, is pithy and entertaining. Reading Luther filtered through Trueman was ideal. Rev. Trueman does a masterful job of distilling a frankly overwhelming body of work and drawing out the essence of Luther’s theology. Rather than taking a single point in Luther’s life and calling that “true Luther,” the author takes the reader through the process of growth evident in Luther’s work. He quotes long passages, instead of tweetable sound bites, and he gives historical and biographical background through which to view the quotes. Rev. Trueman also does an admirable job of mostly separating himself from the work. In areas like the Lord’s Supper and the use of imagery, where a Presbyterian (Carl Trueman is an OPC minister, and professor at Westminster Seminary) would differ from Luther, Rev. Trueman offers those differences in footnotes, not within the text. There were only two places in which I felt Rev. Trueman’s voice rise above the work itself. In both places it was deliberate and added to the point being made about Luther rather than (in my opinion) detracting from it. Finally, Dr. Trueman does not permit himself to fall into hagiography or sensationalism. He is unafraid to mention the times in which Luther was “fundamentally wrongheaded” to quote the author, but he gives those moments the percentage of attention they deserve. He does not deny the later life anti-semitism, but he does not permit it to be the sole lens through which Luther can be seen.

Having completed the book, and now stepped back from it for a month or so, I find three major points have stayed with me.

  1. I found the inclusion and discussion of what Luther called “Anfechtungen” to be extremely helpful. Luther spoke of the essentials of the daily christian life as a. speech, b. meditation (not the eastern idea) and c. emotional distress or Anfechtungen. This idea that emotional struggle was not only a guaranteed part of the Christian walk, but a *necessary* element of it was a brain shifting one for me. Understand that Luther is not suggesting we should foster sinful emotional responses. Instead, Luther believed that if we are reading, speaking and crying out the Word of God (speech) and if we are actively pursuing the understanding of the Word of God (meditation) then we will naturally struggle with despair and hope (Anfechtungen.) The word will reveal to us the nature of our sin, and the holiness of God and that will cause a true believer to despair. Rather than being a downward spiral, however, Luther sees the emotional distress as a part of the sanctification process, that will drive us back to speaking and meditating upon the word of God. Luther believed that the emotional distress caused by the word of God was necessary, but that it was an internal response, and it should drive us away from ourselves and toward the external, objective, truth of God.
  2. That leads me to the second point that has stayed with me. All of Luther’s theology was shaped by his view that truth is objective, and therefore must come from outside of us. Dr. Trueman mentions at the beginning of Chapter 5, “. . . the more we examine Luther on the Christian life, the less he would seem to agree with the classic evangelical models.” (p.117) I had already reached the same conclusion by that point in the book. The idea that we must find truth within ourselves, or even that we are capable of some new understanding of God’s truth was anathema to him. Far from the rebel evangelical nailing the pope to a wall that is portrayed in popular culture and social media every October, Luther was seeking to return the Church of Christ to the objective truth that has been entrusted to her. If someone had said to him, as is the common parlance of our time, “I didn’t take that from the text,” Luther would have reprimanded her. There is the text. You take from it what is there, and you seek that outside of yourself, not from within. I was chastened (needfully) and driven back to speech and mediation.
  3. Finally, Luther’s habit of speaking to the devil when he faced questions was tremendously helpful to me. Whether Luther was actually conversing with the physical accuser of the brethren, or just facing his own sinful nature is of no significance, really. The point is, that when Luther found his mind assailed with doubt, he spoke truth audibly. This is a very practical application of Philippians 4:8 that I had once practiced and abandoned as mystical. Hearing the way in which Luther reminded the devil, and himself, of his standing before God, and the promises upon which that standing rested, gave me a sense of permission to do the same. My having a more robust theology now than then, I suspect has also helped it to be a more effective tool.

There is so much more to be commended in this book than a few hundred words can do justice. I recommend it highly, and I hope that this raving blog post also serves as the thank you card I did not send to my dear friend Sarah.


Book Review: Songs of a Suffering King by J.V. Fesko

Ask most Christians if they have read the Psalms, they will answer, “Of course.” Many will even claim it to be their favorite book of the Bible, or a place of refuge in emotional struggle. Often if pressed, however, the truth revealed is that we have certain favorite Psalms to which we turn, repeatedly, but the book in its entirety is a mystery to us. One of the interesting things to remember about Psalms is that the order in which the psalms appear, and the headings of authorship and timing are all inspired. While God certainly intend that we read and sing individual psalms, he also intended that they be encountered in a specific order, and as a complete unit.

J.V. Fesko makes this point in Songs of a Suffering King: The Grand Christ Hymn of Psalms 1-8, and then walks through the first eight Psalms in an effort to encourage our further exploration of this wonderful book. Fesko operates on two theological premises. The first is that all of the psalms are about Christ and the second is that the psalms should not only be read, but also sung. In light of the second, he includes a metrical version of the Psalm in the study at the end of each chapter which he has selected from a variety of available Psalters. Having been introduced fairly recently to the practice of metrical Psalter singing, I think this idea of singing a psalm after having studied it would be a great way to re-introduce the practice to a contemporary church who has lost it.

Fesko’s studies of the psalms in question are both Christocentric, and rooted in the history from which the Psalm written. This is not a study of the form of Hebrew poetry or the literary qualities of the passages. These are moving exegetical studies that show us that the Psalms aren’t the biblical equivalent of pulling a security blanket over our heads.

I reviewed Fesko’s work  Christ and the Desert Tabernacle two years ago, and having now read this one, I am eager to read more of his books. He has the rare gift of being both pastoral and academic and he manages to help us find Christ in parts of scripture we don’t believe he can be found.

I received no compensation for this post. I was provided a paperback edition for the purpose of review. I was not required to provide a positive one.


Book Review: Biblical Portraits of Creation by Walter C. Kaiser

I am behind on my book reviews. Apologies all around.

First up is Biblical Portraits of Creation: Celebrating the Maker of Heaven and Earth by Walter C. Kaiser. The study of creation is a controversial one and as is the case in controversy we are tempted to become polarized and tilt against the straw men of our perceived enemy rather than seek after truth. Walter Kaiser’s book cuts past that and goes straight to the source of truth: scripture.Biblical Portraits of Creation is an academic study of the whole of scripture. Kaiser digs deep into the text of not only Genesis 1 and 2, but also of wisdom literature, the prophets, and the New Testament to lay out a comprehensive study of what the entire counsel of scripture has to say about Creation. This is not a devotional, nor will you find any elaborate theories of dinosaurs, or diagrams of earth strata. Biblical Portraits of Creation instead explains how the Genesis creation account is foundational to and an interconnected part of the rest of scripture. It is designed, however, to be a study and each chapter ends with questions designed to aid in that pursuit.

Jonathan has been preaching through Genesis in our evening service, and he has said, repeatedly, if you get Genesis, you get the rest of the Bible. Kaiser’s study would be an excellent choice for a Sunday School class, or a small group who want to begin to see how that statement is true and want a chance to dig out the truth through some deep study of their own.

I received no compensation for this post. I was provided an electronic copy for the purpose of review. I was not required to provide a positive one.


Book Review: China’s Reforming Churches (Bruce Baugus, Editor)

As I was reading China’s Reforming Churches I was struck by how ignorant I am regarding the history of the body of Christ in China, and how uninformed I am regarding the present state of Christianity there. My personal politics and very limited one and two person removed exposure to China has created a caricatured view of the country, the culture and the state of the church in this largest of all nations on earth. China’s Reforming Churches offers three wonderful challenges to readers who, like me, have been guilty of unintentional bigotry.

First, the Introduction and first three chapters offer a very detailed history of the Presbyterian and Reformed movement in China over the last 200 years. There is some overlap in the details covered, which I didn’t enjoy, but the coverage is comprehensive and lays a foundation for a more well rounded view of the contemporary Chinese church.

Next, many of the contributing authors are Chinese pastors, and several chapters compiled by North Americans, are posts and articles written by Chinese Christians or interviews of local Chinese pastors and elders. Reading their words, and their thoughts about their own culture can quickly dismantle one’s muddle of misconceptions.

Finally, there is no way to read about the contemporary church in China without coming to the conclusion that while the book is titled “China’s Reforming Churches” it should really just be titled “Reforming Churches.” So much of what is written about the church in China could, with the change of only geographical reference, be said about the churches in Canada, or the United Kingdom, or Australia, or the United States. I was startled at how familiar the struggles were, and how universal the answers should be. While this book is written about China, it is a book about how to maintain and grow healthy churches, and how to effectively train pastors and how to engage within culture. The answers are as true in my home church as they are around the world, in China.

While almost all of the book was fantastic, Chapter 9 was a red herring. The discussion of one and two kingdom theology is complex, and universal. It is surely a matter of great discussion in China, as it is across Western reformed Christianity, but VanDrumen’s chapter was irrelevant to the rest of the subject matter. I was disappointed in its inclusion in an otherwise helpful book.

China’s Reforming Churches  is a wonderful book. It is an intensive read, and won’t be consumed in an afternoon by the pool, but it is worth the time and effort to gain a more accurate view of our brothers and sisters in China, and to reflect on the global needs of the Universal church.

I received no compensation for this post. I was provided an electronic copy for the purpose of review. I was not required to provide a positive one.


Please Read This Book Review: Worshipping With Calvin by Terry Johnson

I know that I haven’t been blogging much lately, and I know that my book reviews aren’t usually my biggest hitters, but please, please, please read this review because this is an important book.

I am a product of the worship wars of the 1970’s and 80’s, and have spent far too much of my life as a Christian believing that worship was unaffected by doctrine. However, the early church fathers, and the reformers and all of the heavy weight thinkers through out church history have had a very different view on worship. They believed that what we believe is true must determine how we act, and there is nowhere that this is more important than in the corporate worship services of the Body of Christ. Worshipping with Calvin by Terry Johnson makes the compelling point that we should follow their example.

Johnson’s biggest strength is when he acts as a conduit, presenting the biblical and historical view on Christian worship in a tidy, readable package. Calvin and his reforming compatriots did nothing without careful consideration and deliberate exegesis, and Johnson does a wonderful job of presenting how that worked out in their view of Christian corporate worship. Having once been under the misapprehension that much of the practices of the reformers were trappings left over from the medieval papacy against which they were protesting, I was impressed at the thoroughness with which Johnson dispelled this commonly held myth. On the elements of worship, and the doctrine that forces their necessity, Worshipping with Calvin is clear, concise and meticulously exegetical and historical. I have been deepening in my understanding of reformed doctrine and practice over the last five years, but portions of this book explained issues that had previously been unclear for me.

Unfortunately, there are times that the author gets in his own way and allows his personal soap boxes to cloud what could have been a paradigm shifting book. The first chapter is a muddled tirade of bad history and poorly stated Barna surveys. This last inclusion is ironic, considering the author goes on to lambaste George Barna personally, and the use of his demographic studies, in chapter 8. I wish the author had jumped from the preface (which is excellent) immediately into the heart of the matter which is found beginning in chapter 2. There was a culturally insensitive portion of at the end of chapter 8 that made me cringe a little. Additionally, when referring to contemporary trends in American evangelicalism, the author often jumps to the extreme fringes. The churches to which he refers have claimed association with neither Calvin, nor reformed doctrine, and to include them as negative examples feels too much like a disingenuous straw man attack. In fact, as my friend Sarah pointed out in her excellent review, he occasionally criticizes models and practices that have fallen out of mass favor. Conversely, when emphasizing the importance of the use of historical hymns, Johnson fails to acknowledge groups like Indelible Grace, Red Mountain Music and David Crowder who are making an effort, often as a direct result of their reformed doctrinal leanings, to encourage and promote a return to the very hymns Johnson praises. This is more unfortunate when many in this movement are members of Johnson’s own denomination.It makes me fear that Johnson will alienate the very people who are most likely to read, and most in need of, this book.

This brings me to the first sentence of my review. This is a very important book. It is vital that we begin to understand that the word Reformed has deep and abiding implications. During the reformation, men and women faced imprisonment and death not primarily because they believed in five Solae, but because the truth of what they believed changed every single detail of the way they worshiped. If we say that salvation is all about God, and that we bring nothing to the table, we must, by application, believe the same thing about the way we worship the God who has saved us. Worshiping with Calvin should be widely read and discussed among anyone who considers themselves a Calvinist, or reformed. I only ask that you give the author as much of that grace we all talk about as you can handle.

I received no compensation for this post. I was provided an electronic copy for the purpose of review. I was not required to provide a positive one.


Book Review: Active Spirituality by Brian G. Hedges

I have been reading a lot of non fiction lately, both for the blog and for other reasons. While different in substance, and even style, there is an element of knowing what you are getting into with a non-fiction piece that I really like. The words themselves will surprise, or even offend me, but the form and shape is fairly constant from one to another. Active Spirituality is sub titled “Grace And Effort in the Christian Life.” When I sat down to read it for review I knew what I was expecting, and I had some idea of the topics the author would discuss. I was interested to see where exactly he would land on this thin balancing beam between true grace and antinomianism. Instead, I still haven’t figured out exactly what I was reading.

This is not a theological treatise. This is not a devotional. This is not an opinion piece. I was baffled. Frankly, I put it down and gave up. But I kept coming back to it.

Active Spirituality is written as a series of letters between a pastor and relatively new Christian. It has a rambling, non-linear structure. The subjects seem to come at random, then disappear, only to reappear three or four letters later, tied to another thought, or idea. I felt as if I had entered a conversation in which I had missed the introductions and a few key facts. I was that awkward person who smiles and nods but never knows exactly what is going on.

Except, just as I was ready to toss it aside, and say, “enough of this!” there would be a moment of brilliant clarity. The chapters on the armor of God were amazing. The idea of acedia (spiritual laziness) was brand new to me, and extremely convicting. And the style of the book itself became a teaching tool for me.

The bottom line is that friendships and conversations are never linear and tidy. I often leave conversations feeling that there were only snatches of ideas, threads of possible topics, instead of orderly discourse that would meet a rhetoric guideline. Yet, when I am back with that friend another day, something picks up something else and we’re back tugging at that thread again, much like the letters in this book.

I wish I had read this book for book club, instead of for review. I have no idea what I thought of it, and I would love to sit back and listen to what others took away. If you’re looking for a bible study or an instructional manual regarding law and grace and personal responsibility, this isn’t what you’re looking for. But it is a good example of how we disciples those with whom we have relationships, and I think new believers would find it helpful.

You can click here to listen to an interview with the author, which will be far clearer than my review.

I received no compensation for this post. I was provided an electronic copy for the purpose of review. I was not required to provide a positive one. I keep a disclosure statement here.