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.

Book Review: Growing Up God’s Way for Girls/For Boys by Dr. Chris Richards and Dr. Liz jones

“The Talk” is a phrase that strikes fear in the hearts of parents every where. Did you know that the average age of puberty has gotten two and a half years earlier from 160 years ago? This means girls currently begin puberty between 9 and 11, and boys between 10 and 13, compared to the ages of 11 – 13 (girls) and 12 – 14 (boys) from the 1850’s. I learned this reading “Growing Up God’s Way for girls” for review and as my oldest is about to turn seven, I had a moment of panic. The idea of having “the talk” with her had seemed like a far off event I could ignore without peril, but I only have a few years before things begin to get moving, hormonally speaking.  I also had the startling realization that being 22 months apart, my two youngest will be embracing puberty at the same time. I had to close my eyes and pray about that.

So it turns out that Growing Up God’s Way for Girls and Growing Up God’s Way for Boys are not only helpful for pre-pubescent children. They are also helpful for parents to identify the need for such a book. I’m sure everyone has read a book like this at some point in their adolescent years. The phrase “there are changes happening in your body” has been written in as many fonts and colors and ways as there are available. So what makes these two books differ from the thousands of others in the market place?

First, these books write about puberty and adolescence as a gift from God, and a right of passage. All of the phraseology is positive. Rather than assuming that the experience of puberty will be an angst riddled puddle of pimples and tears, the authors present the view that God designed this transition stage to prepare us for adulthood, and therefore it is ultimately a good and glorifying thing. Secondly, puberty is explained as a preparation for marriage. The chapter on marriage comes long before the chapter on physical intimacy, rather than as the “but only when you’re married” addendum often tacked on to these discussions, and it forms the framework for the rest of the chapters. Puberty is not a hurdle to cross before becoming an adult, it is one of the ways God prepares us for the responsibilities of marriage and adulthood. This is a very biblical view of sexuality, and I appreciated it. Finally, the works are very complementarian in their approach to marriage. Men and Women are described as having equal, but different roles, and the For Girls title differs from the For Boys title in substantive ways beyond anatomical diagrams because the authors believe that men and women are very different in our substance and calling.

All of those things are very important to me, so I was happy to find them here; however, I do have some reservations about these books.

I am pretty far into the conservative/complementarian camp on women’s issues, but there were some heavy handed statements made, especially in the “for Girls” book, that caused me pause. Some (like the suggestion that the deeper voice of a man was a sign that men, not women, are to preach) seemed strangely unnecessary, and left me wondering how they even made it past an editor, but largely unconcerned. On page 75 in the “For Girls” book, however, I took issue with the sentence, “God’s plan for many girls will be to marry and to have a family, and formal education spends little, if any, time training you to prepare for this role.” It is not contained in the “For Boys” book, revealing a bias that surprised me considering one of the authors is a female pediatrician who has, presumably, a significant amount of formal education. Additionally, in chapter 8 of both books the authors present a flow chart from singleness to dating to engagement to marriage and then describe each step in detail, including a definition of dating as “exclusive, committed and public.”

On these two issues, I felt that the authors stepped out of their roles as advisors and into my territory as a parent. There are good and Godly people who have very different views on these subjects, and there are no “definitive” Christian positions. These subjects should be addressed in detail at the family level. By choosing to include them in the book, not only are the authors choosing to advise a specific (controversial) path authoritatively, they are not giving these subjects the level of significant study and discussion that they deserve. Both the subject of dating, and the subject of the value of formal education could be entire books unto themselves. Neither are subjects that pre-adolescent children should be expected to navigate outside of the worldview framework their parents are working to instill.

I will hold onto the review copies I have been sent, and will possibly use portions of the books with my children as we begin to navigate the uncertain waters of impending puberty; however, I will not be handing the books over for an unsupervised reading.

I received no compensation for this post. I was provided 2 paperback copies for the purpose of review. I was not required to provide a positive one. I keep a disclosure statement here.

Book Review: Bible Revival by Kenneth Berding

Do you remember the story of Stacey Irvine, the girl in Great Britain who ate nothing but chicken nuggets and just about died? Well Kenneth Berding asserts that North American Christians are killing ourselves spiritually in the same way by dining on a steady diet of “Christian fast food” and ignoring the necessary sustenance of the word of God. Berding lays out a call to Bible Revival and challenges Christians to learn, value, understand, apply, obey and speak the word.

Berding’s passion to see Christians passionate about the Bible is clear and contagious. He has a legitimate concern that while we have the greatest access to the Bible in all of Christian history, we are not only not reading it, we are often despising it. Our biblical illiteracy is not only a shame, it is a sin, and Berding calls it such. I sped through this 80 page book in a single day, because I also share the author’s concerns and I was eager to read his take on this self-induced spiritual famine.

Kenneth Berding identifies many of the issues related to the problem clearly. He calls laziness and unbelief and a failure to trust in the sufficiency of scripture exactly what they are, and he illustrates those things to help us face our own blind spots. He writes like a concerned parent, and readily admits his own failures in many of these things. I felt like I would really like to invite the author for dinner and have a long conversation with him on the subject.

I did have two disappointments with the book. First, in addressing the need for a revival in our passion for the word of God, Berding fails to express why, exactly, we should care about the Bible and our knowledge of it. Romans 10 tells us this:

13 For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”

14 How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard?[c] And how are they to hear without someone preaching? 15 And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!” 16 But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?” 17 So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.  (ESV- emphasis mine.)

So we know that the word of God, both read personally, and preached in corporate worship (vs. 14), is one of the primary ways by which the Holy Spirit works faith and grace in our lives. Berding never expresses the reason for the urgency of his call to return to the word of God. Not only are we starving ourselves to death, we are removing ourselves from the work of the Holy Spirit when we remove the word of God from our lives. That is the first, and most important, reason for us to learn, value, understand, apply, obey and speak the word, as Berding challenges.

Secondly, this quote in the first chapter was very disheartening: “In short, the sense that we know a lot about the Bible because we grew up going to church is misguided.” While it may be true, it should not be accepted as true. Berding’s point is that we must be actively involved in reading the word daily rather than weekly, and I heartily agree; however, as Romans 10 (above) and Ezekiel 37  teach, the weekly preaching of the word MUST be the cornerstone upon which all other personal and group bible study is built. I am sure that Berding would agree with the necessity of the church and corporate worship. His emphasis on personal study of, and literacy in, the Bible, without the inclusion of the importance of the preached word, created an unfortunately unbalanced perspective.

Bible Revival is a necessary book on a necessary subject, and Berding’s challenges to some of the besetting sins of our North American Christian culture are as well written as they are well deserved. His appendix on memorizing is a wonderful resource and is almost exactly the way we are memorizing scripture in our family.

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

Book Review: “Great Kings of the Bible” by Deepak Reju

When looking for children’s bible books, Jonathan and I have two criteria that all too often aren’t met. First, we want to avoid any pictures of Jesus, and secondly we want all stories to acknowledge that God is the hero of the stories, not the human participants. We were delighted to see Great Kings of the Bible: How Jesus is greater than Saul, David and Solomon passed both of those hurdles.

As the subtitle states, the author sets out to use the lives of the three kings of unified Israel to point to King Jesus as the greatest King. Reju sets the story out in simple chapters that are beautifully illustrated by Fred Apps. Sticking to the facts as  laid out in scripture, each king is portrayed in both strength and weakness, and then compared to Jesus, the only perfect king. My children found the stories engaging, the illustrations capturing and enjoyed the repetition of the theme that Jesus was the greatest King of all.

I was disappointed that in comparing the great kings of Israel to Christ the natural comparison of covenant representatives was not included. The book lead us to those conversations with our children, but we were surprised not to find it in the text of the work itself. Additionally, I found the section on Bathsheeba to be a little more detailed than I would have preferred to read to children as young as mine. The overall idea of Great Kings of the Bible is an excellent one, and we are pleased to have it in our library. It sparked some good discussion with the children and happily coincided with their memorizing Christ’s three offices in the catechism giving us another avenue of comparison between temporary earthly kings and King Jesus, our eternal King.

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.

Book Review: John Knox by Simonetta Carr

Sometimes when I get to review a book, I do a little happy dance like when Captivated arrived in my in-box. This book, however, is the first time that my kids did that dance with me. When Simonetta Carr’s latest biography for childrenindex showed up in the mail, my two oldest children recognized the cover style because of the other two biographies in our library and began to jump up and down, begging to look at it. The toddler, who is not exactly the target audience here, joined in because she doesn’t want to be left out of any celebration if she can help it.

Simonetta Carr excels at introducing young elementary aged children both to great heroes of the faith, and to the beauty of biographies as a genre. She writes in an age appropriate manner, and my children, especially my Mackerdoodle (6.5), are captivated by the stories. Knox is a controversial character, and often both misunderstood and misrepresented, but Carr deals with him kindly. She walks through Knox’s complex life clearly and chronologically, focusing on events and people rather than the ideas and words for which he is most known. One cannot tell the story of Knox without delving deeply into the political mess that was England and Scotland of the time. Carr explains the accompanying history in an age appropriate way, without turning it into a Disney princess tale. There is an over simplification of a few points only because it is a book for children, and there is only so much that be explained. Her attention to historicity is laudable. I was most impressed with phrases like, “We can’t be sure. . . ” and “We just don’t know. . .” sprinkled through out. I also love the fact that she includes direct quotes not only from Knox, but also from his contemporaries, rather than trying to re-interpret their words for children.

I always struggle with children’s history books. History is never cut and dried, yet so many children’s books are written in the “good guy/bad guy” construct. Simonetta Carr does an excellent job of breaking out of that mold. She also avoids the other pitfall of children’s writing in which authors make every historic event equivalent to a playground skirmish. There is no language of sharing, kindness, good helper or the like. Carr does have opinions on the topics covered (as should we all) and does include editorial remarks at times. In most cases I didn’t mind, as she and I share much of the same appreciation for Knox and his legacy; however, their presence did stand out to me. I would prefer my history lessons for the children to be as much fact as possible, leaving me to interpret with them. That is, however, mere preference, rather than criticism.

After completing the book, I asked my Mackerdoodle what she thought. She had enjoyed the book, and had a new appreciation for the trials endured during the Reformation, but she had one question for me. “Why did it seem like most of the men were named John and most of the ladies were named Mary?” It was a valid question, and not one that can be blamed on Simonetta Carr and her writing. I learned several new things as I read the book. I did not know that the Scots confession pre-dated the Westminster confession. I did not know that Knox wrote a book on the Reformation in Scotland (I would love to read that!) Finally, I did not know that Knox and Queen Mary Stuart had cordial conversations on several occasions.

Simonetta Carr’s biography of John Knox is not only an excellent biography for children, it would be a wonderful place for an adult to begin to meet the real John Knox, pastor, husband, father and loyal Scot.

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.

Book Review: Captivated by Thabiti Anyabwile

captivatedI have been following Thabiti Anyabwile on twitter for quite a while, so when I had the opportunity to review his book, I was delighted. Captivated is a collection of five sermons Anyabwile preached on the crucifixion of Christ, encouraging his congregation (and now his readers) to gaze more deeply into the truth of the cross. Each chapter tackles a question asked in scripture and lays out the biblical response. “Is there no other way?” focuses on Gethsemane and Christ’s prayer to have the cup pass from him. “Why have you forsaken me?” explores the rejection and abandonment Christ faced in the cross. “Where, oh death, is your victory?” is a chapter dealing specifically with the implications of Jesus’ physical death. “Why do you seek the living among the dead?” speaks to the way the angels re-directed the women from grief to rejoicing and points to our own need for re-direction. Finally, in “Do you not know these things?” Anyabwile seeks to make the historical reality of the cross a matter of personal truth.

In the introduction, Thabiti Anyabwile invites us to abandon our mothers’ admonition not to stare, and to, instead, look deep into the mystery and awe that is found in the defining moment of our faith. His expressed hope is that the book would cause readers to slow down and remember the wonder of these familiar words. Too often when an author expresses that desire, the overwhelming emphasis is on the physical sufferings of Christ on the cross. Anyabwile steps away from that and focuses on things like the righteousness of God, the significance of atonement and other deep truths of the cross.

Each chapter reads like a sermon, and at times I could almost hear it being preached in my head. Each chapter builds to a crescendo of cascading application that I really enjoyed. It was fascinating for me to read this technique that I have heard and seen in black preachers. It is, interestingly, more effective when read because I was assured that it was the power of the words themselves moving me along, rather than that charisma of the man saying them. Still, I felt, at times, the need to nod and say an “Amen” or two while reading.

My least favorite chapter was “Why have you forsaken me?” as it felt more speculative than the others. There is so much we don’t know about how the Son was forsaken by the Father, and the author acknowledged that to speculate too much would be to invite blasphemy. I don’t believe he crossed that line, but it felt close, at times. On the other hand, “Why do you seek the living among the dead?” was my favorite chapter. I loved the way it was written, and the way in which Anyabwile used the question of the angels to question us and re-direct our gaze. It is a chapter I will be re-reading when I am not on a review deadline.

Captivated meets its goal. I was encouraged to slow down and remember the power and significance of Jesus’ death and resurrection. If you want to hear some more from Thabiti Anyabwile (including how to pronounce his last name) check out his interview on the confessing Baptist podcast.

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